Petra Costa’s Doc ‘Elena’ Delicately Punches You Right in the Gut

A mystery, a love story, a dance between New York and Brazil, Petra Costa’s film Elena is an intensely rich visual and emotional experience. Although the film pivots on one point of family tragedy — the suicide of the filmmaker’s older sister, Elena, when she was studying theater in New York — it is a multifaceted gem. It takes inventive visual and stylistic approaches to examine Costa’s own questions about Elena’s life and death. We had the chance to talk with Costa and hear her evocative, thought-provoking ideas about the creative process and personal and artistic honesty.

What was your process like, of deciding to address this intensely personal subject matter, artistically? And what kind of journey did you go through as a person, an artist, a filmmaker, while producing the film?

“I felt a kind of duty to make a film about young women that are going through this silent suffering.”

The first time I decided to make the film was when I was studying as a theater actress in Brazil working with a theater group called Vertigo. They gave me a little piece of paper with a task to make a scene and on it was written “the book of life.” So I went back home wondering what would be my book of life, and when I decided to look at my diaries, I found a diary of Elena which I had never read. And it was an uncanny experience of feeling my life had already been lived by another. And it was very intense — this idea of a double. So I made a scene mixing parts of Elena’s diary with parts of mine, and at that moment [at age 17], I was going through many of the crises that she had been going through while she was writing about them.

So I decided at that moment that one day I would make a film about it, not just because I was entranced with the idea of the double, but because I felt a kind of duty to make a film about young women that are going through this silent suffering. Because I knew many young women who had attempted suicide, and I felt this was a story completely unrepresented in Brazilian cinema and felt a duty to tell Elena’s story as a story of these Ophelias, as I call them. I only went about making the film ten years later when I actually became a filmmaker. When I decided to write the film it started as a fiction, and the idea of the fiction was to have this mystery of not knowing who died — if it was the sister or the actual protagonist who is walking through the streets. It was only when I went about looking for all the material with Elena that I could find that I decided to use archival footage and to ground it in reality.

Can you talk about the process of mixing reality footage to create this amazing layered tapestry. How did your thoughts evolve about creating a documentary with “actuality” footage: home movies, personal documentation, historical footage, personal documents, and combining them with more imagistic, metaphorical works? What was your collaboration like with your cinematographic and editorial team?

“It really kind of brought her back to life in this magical way.”

It was a constant threading back and forth between the editing room and the photography — the actual shooting. I started to look at everything I could find of archival footage and I found 20 hours of material that kind of brought me back through a tunnel of time to the beginning of the 80s — a time I had no memory of and which was extremely beautiful to see: all of this footage of Elena dancing. It really kind of brought her back to life in this magical way — like the magic of cinema. And then that footage inspired how I decided to go about and shoot the images when I came to film in New York.

So I had this idea that I wanted to continue that sensation of dance that was so present in Elena’s imagery and try to somehow dance with the city. I had used a lot of Super-8 in my short films, and I knew that I wanted to use Super-8 again mixed with hi-definition photography, and so I started that alone, and also with my D.P. Janice D’Avila, who worked with me in New York, to determine the best ways that we could come back and forth through these different times of the present and the past, so we could portray what it was like to look at a city and see the city of the now and the city of your memory. And also [to decide how to approach] the now, an experience of the present, how to invest it with a sense of subjectivity. So we explored different types of lenses that would give a sense of subjectivity. And with the editors Marilia Moraes, Tina Baz, and Idê Lacreta, I was learning a lot from them about what works best in terms of photography, and going back and forth between them and the shooting, so it was a very enmeshed process. It was intermingled and it was essential for it to be intermingled; if not, it would be a very different film.

What was it like to work with your mother in the film and having her literally revisit the family’s footsteps in New York and the trauma of losing Elena. Was she always open to it; did you discuss much of it outside of interviewing her? And what is your and her relationship with New York like now?

“For my mother, the film definitely had a kind of therapeutic element.”

It was our first time going back to the house [in New York] where we had lived. It’s funny because you can inhabit a city but not really remember the past. So it was our first time back really plunging into our memories. She asked me not to talk about the film while I was doing it, because it was a bit too much. So there were the intense moments when I would interview her; otherwise we wouldn’t share so much [about the film].

For my mother, the film definitely had a kind of therapeutic element, and she says she felt a lot of pain, but also a lot of relief in going back to the story and telling it. Especially in having it shown to other people, and being able to share the story with so many other people; this is something she had wanted to happen — to be able to share it, but she hadn’t been able to because of the weight, and guilt, and processes that had shut her down from actually being able to write the story. The audiences for Elena have always been extremely welcoming and generous — they hug her and tell her their own stories of grief and loss, so there’s this healing aspect of it.

And for me it was this closing of a chapter in my life. I mean, something very magical happened in the film, and I wrote this piece for Harper’s magazine’s website where I recount the dreams I had with Elena throughout the process of making the film. I had dreamt of her very little before I started making the film but once I started to film, I had dreams of her constantly. And first the dreams I had were filled with pain, like in the first dream I recount in the film, in which she dies, but I am not sure if it’s she who has died or I who had died. But slowly the dreams began to have a beautiful aspect, like I dreamt that I danced with her, us together.

“For me it was this closing of a chapter in my life.”

Do you feel like you will continue to work in this very personal style? Obviously you have this incredible gift for telling a personal history and telling a viewpoint from a female side as well. So I am wondering where you will go next.

I am making another film with Théâtre du Soleil, a theater group which I’ve admired for many years. And the theme of the film touches on many threads with Elena. It’s centered around the life of an actress, and going into her own psychological journey as she expects a baby and enters into a kind of identity crisis as an actor and a woman. It’s at the limits of documentary and fiction, because it’s her enacting her own life and her own personal questions. So there are those similarities.

And I am writing another fiction film. It’s not based on myself; it’s based on a fictional character, but I use a lot of my own personal memories to write it. I don’t know — I was very influenced by my theatrical training where my most inspiring teacher would always tell me that no matter what character I was going to portray, I should try to go into what felt most visceral to me about that connection, and not be afraid to expose that in its rawness, because that’s where the strength would lie. And I really believe in that.

Do you have advice for young filmmakers who are interested in telling challenging stories outside of traditional frameworks?

It’s really nice because a lot of people, after seeing the film Elena, say that it inspired them to go back to personal stories of loss or grief or just sadness, when at first they didn’t feel encouraged to. It’s a hard question but for me, for example, the idea of depending so much on others to say “Yes, you should be a filmmaker” or “Yes, you should be a writer,” can be so frustrating, because if you are not surrounded by people who actually know what that means they usually think you won’t be able to do it, right? And so, I think if any young filmmaker feels they have a story that is potent and strong, they should not listen to others who don’t think it is, and they should just go obsessively about it and write it in the most honest way they can. Meaning, I think the places where we are most ashamed, and where we have most concern of whether we should expose or not, are usually where the strongest stories lie. So to overcome shame and insecurity, to go to these points of tension in your life, because those are the points that are worth being told and expressed. And in expressing, many knots can be dissolved.