We’ve Got to Keep on Living (and if possible, once in a while, dancing)

By João Moreira Salles  – 6/17/2013

Translated by Robin Geld


I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked what’s the point of a documentary. Usually, the question goes, “What were you trying to say with this film?” Or, “What’s the aim of your film?” Or, in the quick, telegraphic version, very popular, “What’s the message of your film?” Or yet, in pragmatic fashion, “Why did you make this film?”

There’s no good answer to any of these, for the simple reason that the question, in all its variations, is bad. In such situations, we try to be polite and say things which we later live to regret. The truth is that the reasons for which a film is made either are banal (because they paid us, because it’s what we do in life) or very mysterious (the urge to give shape to something which, not formulated, can’t be explained beforehand).

For me, the sure test of a documentary lies not in the reasons that led it to exist, but in the power with which the film itself asserts its existence. What I mean is, more often than we would like, films do not manage to convince the spectator that they are necessary (the films, not the spectators). Were they not to exist, it would make little difference, be it for who watches them (which is important), or for who made them (which is vital). These are the disposable films. The others, few, leave no doubt that because of them, something changed. It can be our awareness of things, our empathy towards the world, film itself. The spectator knows. Something got denser.


ELENA is such a film. At its core, is the tragic event of a life too early interrupted. Those alive are disrupted. The film puts the pieces back togetther, to the extent that this is possible, which is to say, imperfectly. There is no naïve belief in closure, in the ability of art to restore the wholeness that existed before the drama. Quite the opposite, I believe. Through the film, what is sought is a way to come to terms with the irreversibility of death, learning to live with what we will miss, always. If there is no neat conclusion, tied with a bow, neither is there prostration, for we’ve got to keep on living– and if possible, once in a while, dancing, as in the last scene. This uplifting realism, this desire to find happiness despite everything, is what lingers and makes a film about death able to affirm life so strongly.

The final impression is that Petra, the director and sister, made and was made by the film, a bit like that image of the hand that draws another hand and is in turn drawn by it. Without the director, Elena would not exist; without ELENA, my impression is that the director would be sadder, her life trapped in unrelenting grief. She would also be spiritually poorer, not having undergone the experience of having made one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time.




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