At the sharp end

At the sharp end

By Michael Pickard
April 5, 2024


The creative team behind Brazilian drama Living on a Razor’s Edge discuss the inspiration behind this biopic of social justice campaigner Herbert ‘Betinho’ de Souza, comparisons to Pelé and the real-world impact the series is having.

When the creator of Brazilian drama Living on a Razor’s Edge, José Junior, considers the impact and legacy of Herbert ‘Betinho’ de Souza, he reaches for a comparison that everyone will understand, whether they have heard of him or not.

“What Pelé meant for soccer, Betinho meant for social issues,” he tells DQ. “Brazil is one of the places in the world with the most NGOs, and most of them came after the Action for Citizenship network he created. So my main goal was to bring him back to the game, because he was beginning to be forgotten. This is Betinho reincarnated.”

The biopic – known locally as Betinho – No Fio da Navalha (On the Knife’s Edge) – tells the story of a man who, after living abroad in several countries for eight long years of political exile, returns to his homeland to dedicate his life to social justice work.

José Junior

With political dictatorship, social injustice and his AIDS diagnosis stacked up against him, Betinho overcomes his fragile health and a number of personal tragedies to make hunger his number-one enemy – creating what becomes the largest social action campaign in Brazilian history.

The series also reveals a little-known personal side of the activist, based on a family plot at the centre of story, and delves into his legacy as someone who was instrumental in not only easing hunger in Brazil but also inspiring many other social initiatives.

While the man at the centre of the show is described as a genius who helped millions of Brazilians, Junior wanted to portray a “more human, more intimate” version of Betinho’s life.

Betinho died in 1997, aged 61, and it was five years later that Junior first met his son, Daniel Souza, with the idea to make a film about his life. But it wasn’t until 2019 that they got the green light, by which time the project had evolved into a series.

Development and the writers room progressed during the Covid pandemic, before filming started in late 2022. The series then debuted on Globoplay in Brazil in December last year before being screened as part of the Berlinale Series Market in February. It will receive its international premiere tomorrow in competition at French television festival Canneseries.

The challenge facing Junior and his collaborators was deciding which part of Betinho’s life to dramatise, or finding a way to condense his achievements into eight episodes of television.

Júlio Andrade stars as Herbert ‘Betinho’ de Souza, who died in 1997

“Betinho had a very eventful life and one thing we tried to do is show the backstage of politics,” says Alex Medeiros, series head writer and head of dramaturgy and documentaries at Globoplay. “He was behind the scenes of a lot of public events that happened in Brazil. When Brazil had the military coup d’etat in 1964, Betinho was on the wanted list by the military police, so he’s always been around very big national events. The hardest thing was what to leave out.”

Finding a suitable structure for the series was then key to its development, and the creative team settled on focusing on a different aspect of Betinho’s life in each part after an “origin” episode set the scene.

“We felt it was really important to give people context about what it was like to live under military rule, not having democracy, not being able to speak your mind,” Medeiros says of the show’s opening. “That episode takes place over a period of about seven years, until he decides to leave Brazil. Then years later he comes back and becomes this huge activist.

“After that, we follow every step from the 80s until his death in 1997. Even though we go back to his childhood in flashbacks, after episode one it’s fairly linear. The second episode is with him having money troubles, the third one is about the end of the military rule and episode four is the AIDS episode, so it’s a very painful episode.”

Junior describes Living on a Razor’s Edge as a “necessary” story for Brazil and the country’s collective memory as Betinho’s achievements fade from view. Junior also has a personal connection to the show’s subject, crediting him with inspiring his own work to support young people in Brazil’s favelas.

The first instalment of the show acts as an ‘origin’ episode

But he never found the process of dramatising Betinho’s life for television daunting, as he investigated every aspect of his life, achievements as well as flaws.

Júlio Andrade (Under Pressure), who plays Betinho in the series, was also inspired by the man he came to portray.

“I’m not from Betinho’s generation but I was impacted by his stories,” he says. “I leave this project transformed. It has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s got something to do with the memory of our country. Junior said to keep the story of our country alive. Like myself, everybody needs to know the story of this Brazilian hero. I’m really leaving this show transformed.”

Lipe Binder

In his preparation for the role, Andrade spoke to people who knew Betinho, watched videos of him and listened to recordings of him speaking. “But the thing I was most afraid of was doing an imitation of him,” he says. “I was able to get to the point where I could forget about that [research] and bring the spirit of Betinho to the set, so the process becomes natural.”

“The amount of research he did for an actor is way beyond normal,” says director Lipe Binder. “He really became Betinho.”

To bring a level of authenticity to the series, Binder used Super 8 film and video cameras from the 1980s and 90s, while also trying to portray a side to Betinho that would be unfamiliar to those who knew him from his public appearances.

“We really focused on telling this story of a possible hero, not a superhero from your conventional 20th century blockbuster,” he says. “Julio is the best actor in Brazil, so we had to do justice and, from the first line, he gave such a great performance. That brought everybody up to make the best show possible. He also directed; we had a partnership all the way to post-production. It was an incredible experience.”

Medeiros says the show utilised a lot of writers, who all made important contributions to the series, before he wrote the final scripts. People who knew Betinho were also invited to read drafts – “and then we realised we had taken a lot of creative licence in places we shouldn’t have,” he says. “There were some episodes where we kept a fair amount of what was done before, and some we started from scratch.

The aim was to provide a ‘more human, more intimate’ look at Betinho’s life

“Back when they were trying to get it off the ground as a movie, Betinho’s son Daniel actually wrote to a lot of people who knew him and they sent him emails and letters. I had access to that material, and there were a lot of incredible things nobody knew about. I had very privileged access to the purest form of source, the people who lived through it.”

“Alex is very generous because, in reality, the first draft wasn’t all that good and it had to be imploded,” Junior jokes. “All the time, Alex, Daniel or someone else would come up with a different story and the difficulty was [deciding whether] we put it in or not.”

On one occasion, Junior visited a maximum-security prison where he spoke to “one of the biggest drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro” and learned how Betinho had inspired him to lead all the prisoners by giving up one meal a day to support the activist’s Action Against Hunger initiative.

“Another woman, one of the biggest drug dealers in our history, told me she did the same thing in the women’s prison,” he continues. “Since she was out, we decided to get her version, and it’s in the show – and not only do we have this story in the show, but we also had her portraying herself as a prisoner in the show.”

Andrade’s other co-stars include Humberto Carrão (All the Flowers), Leandra Leal (Justice: Life is Not Fair), Andreia Horta (In Your Place), Ravel Andrade (Aruanas), Walderez de Barros (Once We Were Six), Michel Gomes and Sirlea Aleixo.

Meanwhile, the crew includes production designer Tulé Peak and costume designer Bia Salgado, who both collaborated on 2006 Brazilian feature City of God, while DOP Pedro Sotero is known for 2019 movie Bacurau.

The show premieres at Canneseries tomorrow

“When people found out we were doing the show, a lot of people from the industry would call us up and say, ‘I want to be a part of the show. It doesn’t matter how.’ That actually led us to have the most amazing crew,” Medeiros reveals.

Junior also aspired to bring Betinho’s story to the world – and screenings in Berlin and Cannes are proof the drama has international credentials. Globo is handling worldwide sales of the drama, which is produced by AfroReggae Audiovisual in partnership with Formata Produções and Globoplay.

“When I said Betinho was the Pelé of social issues, there are now many social entrepreneurs making a revolution and it’s fundamental to showcase this,” he says. “Normally we see Europe and the US tell us what to do. Now we’re showcasing a unique character who really changed a society and we’re bringing this to the world.”

“I have a 17-year-old daughter and it’s really important for me and all of us that the younger generation know who this guy was,” Binder says. “We don’t cultivate our heroes very well in Brazil. We have a lot of bad press, there’s a lot of negative news, and it’s so refreshing to talk about a guy who 30 or 40 years ago was thinking about hunger and social issues, because we received a lot of criticism for that. It’s really nice to show this one human being engaged in such a great cause and changing our country. We want even Brazilians to know that. It’s extremely meaningful for all of us to be a part of this. He’s a true hero for all of us.”

At Globoplay, Medeiros’s priority is to tell stories for Brazilian audiences, which means it’s even more rewarding when those series are given an international stage.

“It’s very specifically Brazilian; it has a very specific political context and a very specific Brazilian personality, but Betinho was dealing with universal issues – freedom and social challenges other countries will also face,” he says.

He has also found that Living on a Razor’s Edge is having a real-world impact since its local launch last year. “Betinho has this institute, Action for Citizenship [Ação da Cidadania], and for the last 30 years, they have done a campaign called Christmas Without Hunger, a network trying to engage people to donate food for people who need it. This year we had the biggest campaign ever, and now we have a statue of Betinho in Rio. To me, the real-life impact is something I had never experienced before, and that is really rewarding.”

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