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Brazil’s Documentary of the year aims for Hollywood

By El País Newspaper – 10/8/2014

Translation: Lucas Hackradt

Director Petra Costa and Executive Producer Tim Robbins promote ELENA, the story of a personal search rooted in a familiar drama, in Los Angeles

Tim Robbins anda Petra Costa in special screening in Los Angeles

Tim Robbins anda Petra Costa in special screening in Los Angeles

The dream of the Brazilian actress Elena Costa of traveling to New York ended in a familiar tragedy in 1990 when she was only 20. Trapped in a deep depression even after succeeded attempts from her mother to bring her back from darkness, Costa died. Her sister Petra was seven. In the documentary ELENA Petra Costa delves in the deepest causes of depression and brings back her sister’s childhood memories and relation with the family through home made videos and recorded testimonies, in order to explain the inexplicable. “I believe that when you look at the true depth of yourself you can reach places that will mean a lot to other people”, says Petra.

Petra Costa (Belo Horizonte, 1983) was raised in São Paulo and a decade later, after that tragedy, ended up doing the two things her mother had told her not to do: she moved to New York and became an actress. In her film, she explains how choosing this path was some sort of search for her sister ten years after grief had devastated her. In the film, she compares her own childhood with that of her sister. Elena was born clandestine of parents that, involved in political struggles, were not able to give her the same attention she would get should they live in a democracy. Costa explains that her mother had always kept her distance from Elena. One of the film’s strongest scenes is when the mother of both girls and Petra describe “their guilt” with anguish.

The film is also a story of depression, which Costa believes affects a lot of women of her own generation, at least in Brazil. Although she does not call it depression: “It is the feeling of not fitting in and of not knowing how to fit in”, explained Petra last Wednesday in Los Angeles. “When women become women they also become vulnerable”. Her sister’s aspirations clashed with an industry that required much from its actors. Petra defines it as “the woman who cannot wait, but is obliged to do so”.

Elena has actor Tim Robbins and film director Fernando Meirelles as executive producers. Both joined the project when the film was almost done after seeing the possibilities it had of becoming something great, and both help it with their names in the marketing of the film. Tim Robbins says it all began in a party. Petra Costa came to him and gave him a copy of Elena’s DVD during the International Film Festival of Berlin. “It happens to me a lot”, he said during the Los Angeles debate. His own life story convinced him to get involved in the project.

The documentary has been screened in New York and two more times this week in Los Angeles. With this, Elena starts its promotion to the season of Hollywood prizes which culminate in February and March with the Golden Globes and the Oscar. Robbins, who has already won both as an actor, does not make any predictions: “I also do not know how these prizes work”, he answered our reporter.

“When I first saw it, I was struck by it and started thinking of what I could do to help a film with such a great potential in such a competitive market”, commented Robbins after the screening. “I thought that this is a film that can help so many other people in the same situation. It needs a lot of effort to tell this story in the way it has been told. It is raw. It is as if someone had cut their veins open in front of everyone else”, said him while showing his own wrists. “It is a very sad film, but it is also a very beautiful one. It is a type of film I had never seen before”.

Another reason why Robbins joined the production was to make known the history of the years of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985), which is usually still unknown outside Latin America compared to the ones in Argentina or Chile. It is today, almost three decades after it came to an end, that society starts to reconcile with its past and people start pressuring the government to open the secret files of the military. “In Brazil we do not have heroes”, said Costa on Tuesday for an audience of US-Americans on the consequences of the dictatorship. “We do not celebrate our own history as the US does, we are more cynical towards it. If you have nothing to celebrate, you have also nothing to remember”. That is why her film is also an allegory of the therapeutical necessity of reviewing the past in depth, as painful as this process might be, and to remember.

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