By Will Barber Taylor
Bolsonaro’s remarkable rise from relative poverty and obscurity to announcing his candidacy to be President of Brazil in 2018 is a story that has captured the world. This first film film explores how a cocktail of controversy and shock, combined with the growing power of television, turned a fringe politician famous for his offensive views into a serious contender to lead the most powerful country in Latin America. With his sons at his side, Bolsonaro leads an extraordinary political insurgency that showed once again, the growing appeal of right -wing populism around the world.
For many people in the West, Jair Bolsonaro will be known for two things – the burning of large swathes of the Amazon and for getting COVID after declaring it a hoax. He is one of those right wing populist figures who has been regularly compared to Donald Trump, an example it is argued of how the US’s election was not an outlier but rather part of a larger pattern.
The BBC’s newest documentary series The Boys From Brazil seeks to explore not just Bolsonaro but the rest of his family. Documentary makers love dynasties; the Kennedys, the Bushes and the aforementioned Trumps have regularly been the subject of documentaries not as individuals but rather as collective political units. The first episode asserts that to understand Bolsonaro’s rise to power you must also understand his family – hardly a bold assertion but one which does leave open the question of how much of a dynasty the Bolsonaros truly are.
Depicting Bolsonaro’s early life, the documentary goes to great lengths to show not just the poverty of his origins (we see footage of Bolsonaro wandering round his cramped former childhood home) but also the way the deprivation shaped him. We hear anecdotes about his amateur dentist father who seemed to delight in pulling out teeth in much the same way his son delights in pulling out trees and see how the army was deemed the only suitable career path for him.
Bolsonaro’s army days are played against the background of Brazil’s dictatorship which strangely seems to be praised by the film makers – it is perhaps poor framing, but it seemed as if there was more emphasis put on the Bolsonaro view that the military rule of the country was a good thing rather than a repressive regime. This issue could easily have been fixed by showing that there was nostalgia from the likes of Bolsonaro and those who had enjoyed life under the regime without straying in the territory of seeming to praise it.
The film’s approach to Brazilian politics overall is somewhat faint and far from defined, with the exception of its depiction of the Lula years. We are told that the military came to power in 1964 in an effort to repress communism, but not further information is given. Similarly, the return of democracy to Brazil in 1985 is treated without any great detail as to what caused the military dictatorship to fall other than a brief line stating it was the result of an economic crisis. What caused the crisis or how Brazil elected its first civilian President is again glossed over.
Perhaps the best part of the documentary in regard to the politics of Brazil is the first episode’s depiction of the Lula years and how Lula came to become Brazil’s President. Whilst, like the rest of the documentary’s depiction of Brazilian politics it is somewhat sketchy it does give a better indication of what Lula stood for and why Bolsonaro would be opposed to him.
Although it might be argued that this is merely background to the main focus, i.e. Bolsonaro, it is difficult for the film to properly place his views in context with the rest of the Brazilian political landscape when the film tells its viewers so little about it. Indeed, whilst it is evident Bolsonaro was somewhat of an extremist outsider, not much more is done to show why he was able to become elected in the first place or how widespread his views were. To simply present him as a niche politician concerned with the military and military matters prior to becoming interested in wider conservative talking points during the Lula years does nothing to inform of us of how much his ideas and beliefs had currency in Brazil prior to his election as President in 2018.
The choice of interviewees for the documentary is generally good, aside from the predictable inclusion of Steve Bannon (who before his indictment must have filmed with at least half a dozen different documentary teams, presumably to ensure he would show up in political documentaries that are even faintly attached to populism or Trump for the next decade) and Bolsonaro’s son who offers no greater insight other than to praise his father.
The Boys from Brazil is an interesting documentary that has certain flaws. It is certainly watchable enough and does a good job of capturing the unique strangeness of Bolsonaro – many of his bizarre and bigoted statements are shown in the documentary – but it is, perhaps reflecting the man himself, somewhat surface level. We get only glimpses of both the full character of Bolsonaro and the landscape he operates in. It is a shame, for a fuller depiction of the Brazilian political scene would have better explained to outside viewers not just what Brazilian politics is like but why the country is the way it is today. If you know little about Bolsonaro and want to learn more than it is definitely for you, but if you require a deeper understanding of the man and the country he leads then you may have to look elsewhere.