I Want to See Petra Smiling

By Marcelo Rubens Paiva* – O Estado de São Paulo – Online Edition 5/8/2013

elena7There are two paths to take at the crossroads of a personal tragedy: turn away from it or face it.

Many opt for forgetting, surpassing, turning the page, going on with life. Others would rather prod at the unhealed wounds, trying to dig up reasons for the pranks set up by fate.

ELENA, the film, is the result of the courage to confront a painful personal tragedy, not keeping it within, nor forgetting.

Petra Costa, the director and Elena’s sister, decided to try to unravel what deeply marked her own and all her family’s life: the suicide of her sister.

Elena Andrade was the most beautiful of all. I met her when I was not yet 20. She was the babe of the school, the one who best danced, acted. The daughter of former leftist militants– who fought against and were pursued by the dictatorship, supported the founding of the worker’s party, PT, and published a newspaper and magazine, for which I worked—she, Elena, was post-hippie, seductive, daring, free, always smiling. The kind of girl who, wherever they go, everyone notices.

And she was living the dream of a new Brazil, transitioning to democracy and freeing itself.

She moved to New York to study theater. If anyone of that bunch were to do theater, it was she.

Then came the news that knocked everyone who knew her off their feet. No one understood her death. The last ones with whom she spoke over the phone said that she was depressed, lonely. But no one could imagine she would go to such extremes.

Li An, her mother, had all the support of friends. The temptation to fall into a labyrinth of guilts was enormous. She then decided on it, to work with youth.

And Petra, a child, grew up, looking more and more like her sister.

She rarely smiled, spoke in a quiet voice, seemed shy.

She seemed an adult in the body of an adolescent.

She seemed to be holding a weight on her shoulders.

She was restless and curious.

She studied theater, like her sister. Here in São Paulo. She went into Cinema. She lived abroad. In Europe. Then in New York, like her sister. She went searching to unveil her sister.


So as to, through the searching exercise, understand the world and her own self.

So as to understand life, through a rereading of death.

I did the same in Feliz Ano Velho ( Happy Old Year) and Não És Tu Brasil (It’s not you Brazil), books in which, straightforwardly, I sought to understand what had happened to my father. [who “disappeared” during military regime].

I understand (and admire) what little Petra did. When she told me she was making a documentary about her sister, I hugged her and said, “Go all the way!”

She did. Within that shy girl, there was lots of stored up strength and courage…

I want to see Petra smiling.

*Marcelo Rubens Paiva is the author of several books including Feliz Ano Velho (Happy Old Year: An Autobiography)



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