Directors Bet on Their Own Experiences to Make Documentaries

Director Petra Costa

by Ricardo Daehn
Correio Brasiliense newspaper
June 8, 2013

Faced with a theme, filmmakers are free to create, stir and manipulate through many different devices. When it comes to documentaries, due to their purported commitment to reality, a sense of ethics and responsibility might be singularly required. Intervention becomes even more critical when involving not only the familiar, but actually, the family.  Mapping scenes and affections, gathering accounts from people they know, several Brazilian directors have invested in this path of examining and exposing their own experiences. An example is director Cristiano Burlan, who in his documentary Mataram meu irmão (They Killed my Brother) — awarded Best Documentary at the latest É Tudo Verdade Festival — revisits circumstances that lead to his brother’s murder with seven shots.

Intimacy also gave the green lights to “what’s most difficult in a film: being sure that you must make the feature,” according to Petra Costa, director of the documentary ELENA, showing in over ten Brazilian states.

After her experiment with the short Undertow Eyes(2009) — in which she reveals the life of her grandparents — Costa opted for a hybrid narration (“an essay built in the form of a search”) in order to recount her sister’s death with lyric background.

As “everything was so close to me,” editors and screenwriter were an indispensable filter. “It was deeply painful,” says Petra. The director tells that in a continuous process of resurrection and death, Elena gained life and body through interviews and archive images, only to die once again. “When she died, I was seven; I felt it like a child does. I didn’t understand it was a forever thing,” she adds.

During her reconstruction, or her “dancing with [my sister’s] memory,” Costa was inspired by Robert Wilson and Anne Bogart’s  Living Theatre revolution. In a workshop by the Vertigem Theatre Group, much of ELENA emerged. “They believe in personal testimony and scene creation through self investigation,” she explains. An assignment called “The Book of Life” led Costa to her sister’s diaries. “I was not studying film yet, which actually happened through anthropology. It’s a field that allows the writer’s subjective stance due to the impossibility of being objective,” she says, adding that this shift towards the author’s personal vision and actual presence, created in the 60’s, was praised in Chris Marker’s (La jetée) and Agnès Varda’s (The Beaches of Agnès) films.

Three years of work counted on the facilitating element of experience. Her mother’s support, who was involved in the drama, was fundamental. “She said: ‘Maybe if it becomes a film, it will no longer be a film in my mind.’ At the premiere in Brasília, my mother felt a sort of redemption in the audience’s receptivity,” Costa affirms. “The sense of accomplishment is actually coming now, with people’s responses. They say they see their own memories, their own Elenas. I see loss and anguish taking on a new meaning. Transformation.”



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