The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros (BBC Two) promised to tell “the remarkable rise of one of the world’s most controversial leaders”: Jair Bolsonaro. It is certainly a colourful story.
Bolsonaro is the former Army captain who spent years on the political fringes, invited onto TV shows because, in the words of one observer, “you could guarantee he would say something completely mad”. He was an unabashed fan of the country’s former military dictatorship, and regarded by many as little more than a right-wing rent-a-gob who revelled in saying the unsayable. He would rather have a dead son than a gay one, Bolsonaro told one interviewer; in a televised encounter in Congress, he told a female politician: “I wouldn’t even rape you because you don’t deserve it.”
Yet in 2018 he was elected president of Brazil, and is running for re-election. A political commentator summed it up: “He was funny and he was a joke. Until he wasn’t funny and he wasn’t a joke.”
The programme told us that his predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was popular with liberals and feted by world leaders over his promises to protect the Amazon and support gay rights. But, outside the big cities, swathes of the population were socially conservative, believed in traditional family values and put their nation’s prosperity ahead of saving the rainforest. Bolsonaro was their man. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
The documentary was a decent primer on Bolsonaro’s life story, and the last 60 years of Brazilian politics. There were little details to stick in the mind, such as Bolsonaro referring to his three sons by number – 01, 02 and 03 – rather than their names. The programme title billed this as a family saga, and there were elements of Succession-style drama to the story – as when Bolsonaro decided to exact revenge on his ex-wife by making his 17-year-old son stand against her in a city election. (The son won and, according to one person here, spent his time in office playing video games.)
This first episode of three took us up to Bolsonaro’s decision to run for the presidency, seizing his moment when other politicians were being drawn into a corruption scandal. I’m not quite sure where this series fits into the BBC’s quest for impartiality – with the exception of Steve Bannon and one of Bolsonaro’s sons, the talking heads were critical, and it feels like the broadcaster is holding its nose to explore the concept of populism. Episode two promises a mix of “murder, hate speech and dirty tricks”.