5 Major Influences From Petra Costa

Petra Costa

Tribeca Film Institute

Currently screening at IDFA, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa recounts the five things that have inspired her and her film Elena (Latin America Media Arts Fund grantee).

The film recounts the journey of Petra, a young Brazilian woman who dreams of becoming an actress but is warned not to do so by her mother. Against these admonitions, Petra moves to New York City where the reasons why she was advised against this path begin to unfold.

1. Fernando Pessoa’s Poems
My first theater presentations were based on a collection of his poetry. I was 14 going through an existential crisis and I was amazed at how Fernando Pessoa expressed anxiety with such preciseness in his poems. What drew me to him also was how under different heteronyms, with their distinct voices and personas, he delved into and rendered with like piercing existentialism the various facets of human existence.

2 and 3. Chris Marker’s La Jette and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers
When I was a student at Barnard College, we watched Chris Marker’s La Jetee in our film class. I had the sensation of seeing for the first time pure poetry projected onto the screen; the film was a reflection on life and memory crafted with such simplicity. I remember leaving the class with the feeling that someone had grabbed my foot and exclaimed, “This is the path you have to take!” This feeling was particularly timely as I had just been contemplating abandoning the arts to pursue anthropology instead. The week after we saw Battle of Algiers, which just confirmed my desire to work within the medium of theater and film. I remember one specific scene that left an indelible impression: when the women are preparing themselves for the bombings, they take off their burkas and examine themselves in the mirror. Here, I was struck by how Pontecorvo masterfully immerses us in their perspective with such a raw intimacy. With these two films I could envision how to draw a path in filmmaking joining the poetic with the political.

4. My sister, Elena
Elena, my sister, of whom my feature film is about, clearly had a tremendous influence on me. Even though she died when I was seven, I came to know her more deeply only ten years later. I was doing a workshop with the Brazilian Vertigem Theater group. In class, we were assigned to create a “Book of Life,” about our own lives. I kept thinking, “What would the book of my life be?” I started looking around my room. I found my diaries and, rummaging through closets, I found one of Elena’s diaries. As I looked at it, I had the strange sensation of reading my own words; I identified with it completely. Up to then, my relationship with Elena had been one of idealization. We had never been on equal terms. And, she’d written that diary when she was 17, which was how old I was at the time. It was intense learning that she had gone through the same things I was going through. In class, I performed a scene mixing parts of her diary with parts of mine. At the same time, I read Hamlet for the first time. And I found in Ophelia the feminine archetype that was so present in Elena and in me: the difficulty of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, unable to handle overflowing emotions that one doesn’t know how to channel, and almost drowns in.

A bit after that, the Brazilian film Bicho de Sete Cabeças (Brainstorm) had a transformative impact on me. Among other things, it deals with the rite of passage to adulthood from the male point of view. When I saw the film, I realized that many young people also had similar questions; and, that Brazilian films from the female vantage point were scarce. I decided that—one day—I’d make a feature film about this topic.

5. The Beaches of Agnès
Ten years later I saw The Beaches of Agnès, by Agnès Varda, a film-autobiography where the director takes us through her life memories through a beautiful collage of her films, pictures and her favorite beaches. On seeing this film I realized that it was possible to speak in the first person and to re-create one’s own life with so much freedom. Days later I started making Elena.

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