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Sibling tragedy, nuanced term spark Brazilian filmmaker’s art

By Amy Wilder – Columbia Tribune - 4/6/2014

Captura de Tela 2014-06-25 as 12.38.17It is well-known that our community is enriched by a vibrant filmmaking and film-appreciating culture, particularly focused on documentaries. There’s the influence of Ragtag Cinema and homegrown festivals such as True/False and Citizen Jane, which are attracting growing national attention, and filmmaking programs at Stephens College and the University of Missouri are receiving increased funding and programming. It might, however, surprise some that these particular festivals and programs are not the only entities bringing meaningful, cutting-edge documentary narratives to town.

One such film out of the expected circuit will be screened later this month at MU, thanks to the efforts of Jack Draper, associate professor of Portuguese, with support from fellow Professor Ivan Reyna and funding from departments and grants across campus. The internationally lauded documentary “Elena” will come to MU — and the wider Columbia community — later this month, before its official U.S. theatrical release.

That the film has wide appeal is evidenced in the awards it has earned, including the distinction of best documentary at several international festivals and numerous other recognitions for its cinematography, editing and score. It is appearing at several campuses this month in support of its coming release — most of them Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia University, Barnard, Brown, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

Draper might seem, by merit of his title alone, an unlikely candidate to organize a film screening; and the catalyst for the event, a word in the Portuguese language, “saudade,” an unlikely spark. But like art, language is not created in a vacuum — it has direct connections to the prevailing state of emotion or being of a culture and a time.

A LOADED TERM

Elena_adolescente_com_Petra_e_Li_An_1984Saudade, pronounced something like sow-dodge-eh, is a difficult term to translate; it is similar to nostalgia and is often translated as such but encompasses a broader range of emotion and experience, from joy and sorrow to longing, memory and regret for places, childhood or loved ones out of reach.

It’s a concept that has been explored by Portuguese and Brazilian poets and painters for centuries. One late-19th-century painting of that title by Brazilian José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior conveys the word’s meaning in poignant visual imagery: a woman in diffused light stands by a window with what is presumably a letter in hand, her brow drawn in an expression of deep pain and tears sliding down her nose.

The word, used since at least the 14th century, is a part of everyday expression in Portuguese and Brazilian cultures. When someone in Brazil “wants to tell a loved one, ‘I miss you,’ for example, they’d say, ‘Tenho saudades de você,’ ” Draper said. “It’s part of the everyday language. … It’s integrated into everyday life.”

Nostalgia, he added, is an idea sometimes sneered at or met with cynicism in our culture — and was created in the 17th century by a Swiss medical student to describe the condition of homesickness and depression among mercenary Swiss soldiers far from their native land.

Draper’s interest in this particular nuance of the Portuguese tongue and its intersection with Brazilian filmmaking since the 1950s — a subject on which he’s writing a book — brought him into the sphere of up-and-coming Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa several years ago when both attended a conference focused on women filmmakers from Brazil.

There, Costa presented “Undertow Eyes,” a short film about the relationship of her grandparents. “It was pretty impressive,” Draper recalled, saying it fit well with the concept of saudade. He made a point of speaking with Costa, briefly outlining the focus of his research. She mentioned she was working on a film exploring the life and tragic suicide of her elder sister, and when news came out about “Elena” last year, he said, he extended the invitation for Costa to present her work here.

A SISTER’S STORY

Captura de Tela 2014-06-04 as 16.43.17The film explores the life of Costa’s elder sister, Elena Andrade, who moved to New York in the 1990s to follow her dream of becoming an actress. Plagued by depression, Elena ultimately took her own life; Petra was a young girl at the time.

“She’s going back in her late 20s … to sort of figure out who her sister was, from the perspective of an adult,” Draper said. “But also there’s a sort of working through of grief and love for her sister, and the love her family had for her sister.

“All of that is tied into this emotion of saudade,” he continued, “but it’s in the more modern context of this woman who had moved out of Brazil to New York — and she mentions missing Brazil, too, which is kind of the traditional saudade: missing the home country. Because it’s so personal, it almost becomes more universal. It’s not just a Brazilian story. It’s a story of grief anybody who has lost someone could identify with.”

And the film itself has become transnational, winning awards and attention first in Brazil and then in the United States last year at festivals such as South by Southwest. It was brought here partly with help from Costa’s friends and acquaintances, people such as associate producer Sofia Geld, who wrote in an email that she first encountered “Elena” in New York City at the Rooftop Film Festival.

“I was in Brazil working on my own film through February of this year,” she said, and “when I got back to New York, I put the word out that I was looking for a new project to join. The ‘Elena’ team had just settled into New York. … I jumped at the opportunity to work on the American release campaign.

“I believe in the film,” Geld added. “I think it has a strong and important message to share. It is beautiful, honest and stylistically very different from most documentaries I have seen come out of Brazil.”

Moara Passoni, a longtime friend of Costa and fellow filmmaker who worked as an associate producer of “Elena”, agreed. Passoni said in an email that the two have a similar aesthetic, though Passoni is dealing with anorexia in her work while Costa is tackling suicide.

“I think we are both looking to think deeply about how to create nontraditional narratives and to explore film as an experience — one that produces knowledge and new senses — rather than simply as consumption or entertainment,” Passoni said. “… I think Petra has a unique style as a filmmaker. Everything she films is deeply intimate. And she has this ability of drawing the spectator into the characters’ journey in a visceral, tactile and sensual manner. … She is able to engage the spectator to draw from his or her own memory and experience in order to make sense of the story she is telling.”

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