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Petra, A Woman in Search of Her Own Body

by Eliane Brum (writer, journalist and filmmaker) – Época Magazine 6/5/2013

There was this first dream. Elena is in a silk blouse on top of a high wall, entangled in a mesh of electrical wires. Soon it is Petra who is entangled. Petra touches the wires. She gets a shock, falls from high up and dies. Who dies? Petra wakes from this dream with a knot in her stomach. Elena does not wake up. Elena died when she was 20, in 1990. Petra was 7 when her sister died. Elena wakes up, yes. Opens her eyes within Petra. “I feel you in me…” says Petra. Two sisters entangled in electric wires, one of them wakes with a knot in her stomach. The one who lives feels the death within her. Entangled, you can’t tell who died.

This dream dreamt by Petra is the first scene of one of the most beautiful documentaries I’ve seen, launched nationally in Brazilian cinemas as of May 10, 2013. A film that replays within us for a long, long time. When did it start being made? It’s hard to know when a documentary begins. When did it start being made? But it always begins before, way before, when life does not yet know it will have to be acted out so that the alive can live.

Elena’s and Petra’s mother “wanted to be an actress in Hollywood and kiss Frank Sinatra.” She also felt like dying. Up to age 16, when she met the one who would be the father to the daughters that did not yet know each other. The man arrived from the USA “not as Frank Sinatra, but as Che Guevara.” When both were getting ready to fight the military dictatorship in the Araguaia guerilla, the mother was impeded—and likely saved from being killed by the regime, as so many others—because she was 6-months pregnant. Elena was born during the dictatorship and spent her childhood in hiding. Petra was born during the transition to democracy. Elena wanted to be an actress and went to New York. I wonder who Elena wanted to kiss?

Elena died in New York. “This body is sick. Life made it totally sick. Totally. That out of control self returned… I act as though I were an actress. I see all as if on a film screen. I’ll degrade myself and go down this drain.” On the day of the death, Petra and Elena already lived in New York. Petra had to take something to show her class. It was “Show and Tell” day. Elena gave her a blue stuffed dog. And said, “It has special powers. Whenever you really want something, close your eyes, make a wish and shake it.” At school, the kids ask Petra, “But doesn’t it play music, do anything else?” It only shakes. At night, it was no use shaking Elena. “I feel dark, in darkness. My heart’s so sad that I feel the right not to wander with this body that takes up space and shatters what I have that is so… so fragile.”

Elena’s heart, Petra would later discover, weighed 300 grams.

Is that the weight of a heart?

At 7, Petra has nightmares and wants to die, says the psychological report. She avoids speaking about her sister. Petra would hear in the years that followed, “You can live anywhere in the world, except New York. You can choose any profession, except acting.” At 18, Petra had become an actress. Searching through her diaries for material for a workshop by the theater group Vertigem, she found a notebook she had never seen. The handwriting looked a lot like her own, the anguished questionings very similar to her own, the words she had been searching had been found and were speaking out to her. But it wasn’t her diary. Or was it?

Petra was already an actress and now on her way to New York. She needed to find Elena outside herself, because Elena in her consumed her. And she had to do so before turning 20. If she just stayed, like a Rock (Petra), she felt herself living an already traced out destiny, and more than traced, one that had been traveled by. Someone else’s destiny, an other’s. Elena’s memory had to be recovered, Elena had to be given a place outside, so that Petra could know her own self—living. Elena had to be given a body so that Petra could discover the contours of her own.

Salvador Dali – Frontispiece : from his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland

When Petra turns 21, her mother says, “Now, you are older than Elena.” Elena, the film, is the trajectory of a woman in search of being no longer two, but one. It deals with a theme crucial to all women, individuation. Getting oneself out of the body of an other—mother… (sister…)—to be able to be. When this movement of symbolic killing and dying, necessary to becoming a woman, is crossed by a real, concrete death, everything at once becomes more urgent and more entangled. How to kill someone who is already dead and who hurts within us like a brutal longing? How to hurt again the mother, even if this time symbolically?

In this sense, Elena dialogues with very recent, confessional literary works, like Paula Corrêa’s Tudo o que mãe diz é sagrado, (Everything Mother Says Is Sacred), and even if by more subtle paths, with O que os cegos estão sonhando? (What Are The Blind Dreaming?), by Noemi Jaffe. And also with my own fictional piece, Uma Duas (One, Two). It dialogues with this death which Petra Costa calls “inconsolable memory”, in which one has not only to deal with the dying of a beloved, but has to kill again. And how to kill again if the only way to keep this sister alive is holding her in oneself (and feeding her of oneself)?

Elena is an Ophelia, thinks Petra. Ophelia, Hamlet’s fiancée who commits suicide in Shakespeare’s play. She, Petra, is also an Ophelia. There are many Ophelias wandering round the streets of this world, Petra believes. Girls who in coming-to-be women, drown in the river of desires and sensations, of excesses of feelings and wants. Young people who submerge in this disturbing feminine without ever being able to come back to the surface.

Can it be that to become a woman it is necessary to mutilate oneself, only then to get legs and be able to dance, as in “The Little Mermaid? The original story, not the one by Disney—never Disney’s. Can it be that in daring to leave the family’s home to seek another destiny a girl will be punished, as the little mermaid, who accepts to have her voice taken away (her tongue cut out) to live in the world of the prince as a woman? Elena took Petra to watch the film. And then she read her the story that was not told. “What do you mean, she dies?”, asks Petra, let down. She dies.

What is an older sister? What is an older sister who dies? I remember the beginning of Alice in Wonderland (or better even, Alice’s Adventures Underground, the title of Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript). On the first page, Alice’s older sister is sitting reading a book. And Alice gets irritated, not knowing what’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations. Alice is upset because she can’t keep up with or reach her older sister who is beyond her. So Alice dreams the whole story we know. And the last scene in this dream is a confrontation with the Queen of Hearts, this maternal and frightening figure, always ready to take the head off whoever opposes her. Especially of the one who challenges her in Alice’s terms, and says, ‘Who cares for you?” When all the cards come flying down on her and she has to fight them off, Alice wakes up with her head in her older sister’s lap. Safe. The cards are the dry leaves carried by the wind that the sister was gently brushing off the face of her younger sister. Alice wakes up and runs so as not to miss tea time, but the older sister stays. And sitting there, she dreams of Alice’s adventures. And dreams, or imagines she dreams, about her sister growing into a woman.

When there is no longer an older sister to protect the younger from the Queen of Hearts, what happens? When there is no older sister to dream that the younger one will one day become a woman, what happens? And what if it is the older sister who can’t bear turning into a woman, how can the younger one do so?

It is about this intricate labyrinth of positions—mother, daughter, sister… women interlinked (and mixed)—that the film by Petra Costa speaks. It tells also—and a lot—of this impossible place, which is of the daughter who survives faced with an inconsolable mother. There is yet very little written and said about the children who survive in a family devastated by the loss of another. If it is Elena who “saves” her mother, impeding her from going to the Araguaia, from where many did not return, it is Petra who “saves” her this time, impeding, just by being alive, that her mother dies together with Elena. But, in fact, there is no way to save a mother, any mother. There is no way to save even taking this attempt to an extreme, in keeping the dead alive within you.

And how does one get the self symbolically out of the mother’s body to become a woman, when this mother bleeds so much and so deeply over the real leaving of the other daughter, who got herself out of life right when she was trying to become an adult?

The daughter who is left will always have to consummate one more death in order to grow, as she identifies and also confuses herself with the daughter who died, in the attempt to save all of them—and especially the mother. The daughter who remains feels that she needs to support all three. At 10, Petra understands that Elena died forever and she is aware that her mother can die also, at any moment. Petra must avoid this death. So she makes promises, creates mechanisms to save her mother. She won’t eat any more salt, will climb 19 flights of stairs up to their apartment on her knees, will never again look at herself in the mirror. For the mother not to die, she goes into the bathroom with her eyes closed.

ELENA carries the name of one, but is a film about three women. There is Elena, there is Petra and there is the one who named both, but who in the documentary appears only as “mother”. Her name here, is Mother. Left alone to dream, Petra Costa could have made a horror film. Rather than that, she chose delicateness (even if delicateness can exist in horror and horror in delicateness).

Hers is a brilliant piece of work—in film, but also in life. The Mother wished to be a Hollywood actress, Elena tried to be an actress in New York, Petra became a director of actresses—in New York (and here, in Brazil). On becoming a director, she, Elena and her Mother become movie stars in a film they never expected to live, much less act in. On becoming a director, Petra grabs at the one chance of having some control over life, which is to give meaning to that which has none. Life enacted as life.

Now, Elena can die again to live somewhere else. Not only in and outside Petra and the Mother, but in places unreachable even to Petra and her Mother. In each of us, the spectators, the ones living this world born between the film screen and our hearts.

In a way all three women die and are reborn in the uterine liquid of film. Not one two three, but three ones. They no longer drown. They can dive and come on up to the surface. They float.

Now that Elena is a live memory, Petra is not a rock—but water.

Petra kept having dreams about Elena while she sought Elena and the film. “In the first, it was the image of her death. In the second, Elena cut herself and I began to understand her pain. In the third, I cooked her pain in a pan until it evaporated. In the fourth, I flew over a forest and, in a nook of the woods, I saw Elena’s happiness, which was orange, the color of trees in autumn.”

The last dream was in October 2010. Petra, 7 years old, spinning round the waste of Elena, who danced. Together, they danced, spinning. A spin, a dance.

Petra never dreamed of Elena since.

(Eliane Brum writes on Mondays.)

Translated by Robin Geld


Salvador Dali – Alice’s Evidence : from his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland



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