Brazilian director Petra Costa’s ELENA has its international premiere in Amsterdam
In the doc, the filmmaker summons up the image and memory of her sister Elena, who died in tragic circumstances when Petra was only seven
By Geoffrey Macnab
Petra was a theatre student, aged 19, when she stumbled on Elena’s diaries. “I had the strange and uncanny sensation of reading my own words”, she recalls of diary entries that revealed the same passions, anxieties and insecurities she was then feeling as a young woman on the verge of adulthood. “Seeing that was almost like finding a double. My story had already been lived. It’s the sense of vertigo of The Double Life of Veronique – living the past of somebody who already lived.”
Elena had set off as a young woman to make her name as an actress in New York. She was bright, beautiful and seemingly set for stardom. However, she was also fragile and soon lost her way in the big, bad city. In the documentary, Costa retraces her sister’s steps, visiting New York. The storytelling style is poetic and impressionistic. The director’s mournful, inquisitive voice features on the screenplay.
“The subject was not at all taboo for us”, Costa says of her sister’s untimely death and how the family reacted to it. Her mother had often warned Petra not to live in New York, a place she regarded as jinxed for her family. However, she welcomed the idea of the documentary. Slowly, her fear that Petra would follow in Elena’s steps began to dissipate. “She saw that I was someone else.”
The doc features some very intimate material. Alongside the home movie footage and audio recordings, there are the brutally matter of fact documents from the New York coroners detailing the circumstances of Elena’s death. On a more upbeat note, we also see footage of one of Elena’s auditions. She comes across on camera as charismatic and very charming. Through Elena’s contact book, the director tracked down a friend who had kept the audition tape for 20 years. “It was very shocking to see that material. It’s the last images we have of her and she is so lively,” Costa says. “That was one month before her death.”
Elena (sold by Wide House) was rapturously received when it was screened at the Brasilia Festival. Among its most fervent admirers are Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, two of the titans of contemporary Brazilian cinema. As Meirelles commented, “Elena is a rare cinematic experience. That is due to both the depth with which it engages the emotional relationships among the three characters and the poetic delicacy of its textures, sound and text… it’s like a string that unravels before us and suddenly we’re trapped in a knot with no way out.”
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