Netflix series on Brazil’s corruption exposes political divisions

New Netflix series has exposed some of the deeper political division in Brazil in advance of ex-president Lula’s trial.

The Netflix logo is shown above their booth at Comic Con International in San Diego,
The Mechanism explores corruption in Latin America's biggest economy [Mike Blake/Reuters]
Correction3 Apr 2018
A previous version of this story stated that an appeals court handed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a 12 year and one month sentence in March. That was incorrect. The sentence was increased on January 24 and on Monday, March 26, an appeals court in Brazil unanimously rejected the final procedural objections by the former president.

A campaign to delete Netflix subscriptions has begun in Brazil, following the launch of the series called The Mechanism, a political drama which explores corruption in Latin America’s biggest economy.

The line between artistic licence and misrepresentation is becoming the topic of online political discussion.

According to the hashtag tracking tool Tweet Binder, there were close to 2,000 uses of #CancelaNetflix from Netflix subscribers in the last seven days.

The Mechanism began airing on the online demand service on March 23.

The eight episodes currently airing explore corruption in Brazil – looking at the private and public oil and construction industries.

“Inspired by the biggest corruption scandal,” reads the series disclaimer at the beginning of each episode.

The series release follows the “car wash scandal” after a federal police probe in Brasilia at a car wash revealed extensive networks of corruption across Brazil – and today remains an ongoing case.

More than 100 people have been convicted and dozens remain under investigation.

Jose Padilha

The series is directed by Brazilian filmmaker, Jose Padilha. He gained worldwide notoriety for the Netflix series Narcos, recounting the infamous life of Colombian cartel-boss Pablo Escobar during the 1980s and early 1990s, which left many deep scars across Colombia. He is also well known as the director of the US film RoboCop.

In Brazil, Padilha is recognised for the films such as Bus 174 and both Elite Squad films.

What was once an opportunity for escapism appears to be increasingly politicised in Brazil.

The release comes at a significant time in the country. On January 24 the appeals court upheld the conviction of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on charges of corruption and money laundering, and increased his sentence from nine years and six months to 12 years and one month. On Monday, March 26, an appeals court in Brazil unanimously rejected the final procedural objections by the former president.

On April 4, for the Supreme Court will decide whether Lula da Silva will start serving his sentence.

Opinion polls suggest that Lula da Silva is the favourite candidate, ahead of the second favourite far-right candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has been described by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman as “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world.”

Following the release of the series, former President Dilma Rousseff released a statement, decrying it as “character assassination” and “underhanded and full of lies”.

“Here in Brazil, you can’t use real names like in the US, so Dilma has become Janete,” said Celso Dossi, a 39 year old Brazilian writer and screenwriter. Many other names were changed.

When asked for comment, Netflix told Al Jazeera: “We won’t be able to facilitate a statement at this time.”

Alessandra Colasanti, one of the actresses in the series, also declined to comment.

Brazillian journalist, Danilo Motta, 32, told Al Jazeera that he felt it was important for a global audience to become aware of corruption in Brazil, but he had some concerns.

“Of course, it’s important to bring these scandals to people from other countries. But since this audience is probably not aware of the local news around here, it would be better if it was more accurate,” he said.

‘Ideological battle’

Padilha could not be reached for interview, but recently told Reuters: “Brazil, and even the foreign press, has fallen prey to an ideological battle that doesn’t have much to do with the real world. There really is a mechanism that creates the logical structure of politics here.”

“The series is trying to take a position that is non ideological,” he said.

Brazilian film critic Pablo Villaca began his career in 1994. He was the first Brazilian to publish his work online on his website Cinema Em Cena in 1997.

Villaca told Al Jazeera the political nature of the series caused him to cancel his subscription after having used Netflix for six years.

“[Padilha] fumbles with the chronology. There’s a very important scandal that started in the ’90s under the government Fernando Henrique Cardozo, who is one of the founders of PTSB and he changed the chronology so the scandal started in 2003, the first year of Lula’s government. Do you realise how brave that is? Basically what he’s saying is corruption began in Brazil when Lula took power, before that, well it was a very honest country. That’s a very serious thing to do.”

But despite the charges for corruption against Lula da Silva, the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) remains popular, Motta said.

“We became one of the biggest economies in the world, the UN excluded us from the list of starving countries,” he said.

In Brazil, 36 million people were raised from poverty during the tenure of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

The number of Brazilians living below the poverty line decreased from 25 percent in 2004 to eight percent in 2014, when the country was removed from the Map of Hunger by the United Nations.

‘Lula is almost done’

“Brazil seems to be split in two for a very long time,” said Dossi. “We, Brazilian people, think about corruption all the time even if we don’t want to.”

“Lula is almost done,” he said. “PT is always popular, but they always say us and them.”

“[Lula’s] us-against-them speech worked for a long time but doesn’t seem to be working any more,” said Dossi.

“I’m tired because people are talking about politics since 2014, and there’s hate, lies.”

Lula da Silva has maintained his innocence and continues to fight against his charges, saying they are a political witch-hunt.

Motta said: “In one episode, the character corresponding to our ex-president Lula says something like ‘we must make it stop bleeding’ – referring to the Lava-Jato op [car wash scandal]. It means we must prevent them to arrest us [from arresting us].

“In real life, that phrase was used by one right-wing senator and he worked hard for the coup against Dilma in 2016.”


by ”Pablo

wants the authenticity and the credibility based on real facts, but if he’s questioned, that’s just fiction. He wants to benefit from the real life claim and the fiction claim, which is very cynical.”]

In Brazil, the country is split between whether Dilma was impeached or subjected to a coup.

Motta said there was “manipulation when you put those words in Lula’s mouth”.

According to a local publication, in the same week Lula’s bus was shot, he told followers in Curitiba, “we are going to sue Netflix, we do not have to accept that, I will not accept it.”

Villaca took issue with what Netflix describes as “inspired by the biggest corruption scandal”.

“[Padilha] wants the authenticity and the credibility based on real facts, but if he’s questioned, that’s just fiction,” he said. “He wants to benefit from the real life claim and the fiction claim, which is very cynical.”

Although Motta said: “Keep in mind that it is a TV series. Its director has his side.”

Dossi saw things differently. “I can’t wait to watch the second series,” he said.

He watched the whole series over one day, admitting it had some “great acting and nice locations”.

Ethical vs illegal

On the line between artistic licence and character misrepresentation, Villaca said: “For me, it’s not an illegal thing, it’s an ethical thing, it’s a political thing.”

“They decided to release a series about an investigation, which is still ongoing.”

The release was irresponsible, according to him, particularly “in an election year, five months before an election, in an extremely polarised country”.

Netflix are “not worried about quality, they’re worried about quantity,” Villaca said in terms of content.

But he said Padilha was a “fantastic director”.

“[The documentary film Bus 174 showed life’s hardships for a black teenager from the slum in Rio] is one of the films that made me cry the most,” Villaca said.

“That documentary is so beautiful, it’s so humane, because it deals with the real case of the guy who tries to rob the bus in Rio and police surrounded the bus and the police ended up killing him and he ended up killing a hostage … Padilha didn’t justify his crime, but he contextualised what he did.”

For Motta though, the current political instability and the inability for presidents to complete mandates alongside corruption in Brazil “all reinforces the idea that we are not a solid democracy”.

“2018 will be a very difficult time in Brazil,” said Dossi. 

Source: Al Jazeera