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Q&A with Petra Costa in Canada

Q&A with Petra Costa and Sara Dosa – a San Francisco-based filmmaker and ELENA’s co-producer.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Read the transcript below:

Journalist: Can we talk a bit about how you react to seeing this film? Like as the filmmaker, as the sister, as the subject of this film, do you enjoy watching this film? How does it affect you? I wonder, like with repeated festival screenings. What’s it like to watch yourself on screen, what’s the result of these years of hard work?

Petra: I like the phrase that says the film is born in your mind and then (by Bresson) and then dies on the paper then relives in the editing room and then dies in the making and then relives in the eyes of the people who see it, like flowers in the water. And that’s somehow how I feel. Like for me it’s kind of a dead experience to see the film because I’ve seen in so many times and I actually try not to see just to be able some day to feel again seeing it, but I love to share the reactions and see it resonating in other people. But, it’s like, I gave everything I could and now I have to empty out.

Journalist: It’s up to us to take it and react to it and interact with it. Maybe, Sara can you tell us how you became involved in this very personal project.

Sara: Sure, so I came to this project pretty late. Petra and I actually had the good fortune of being roommates when we were studying at graduate school in London. She was studying community psychology and I was studying cultural anthropology but both of us ended up going back to film afterwards and she brought me on board initially as a grant writer and then more and more as a producer and I felt such a deep resonance of the story because I have a twin sister and to me this is a story…I feel very grateful that I’ve never actually lost someone so close to me and the profound kind of tragedy that Petra has, but the thought of going through that and especially being so close to my twin was just horrific and to me like that’s my inconsolable memory that I haven’t had to live and so I was just so moved my her story and because we were dear friends. So I felt very grateful to come aboard the team and then get to work on it and especially see it as it comes to fruition, and then during this wonderful festival tour. It’s been kind of amazing too because, as I said, I’ve never lost someone but there are so many people who have, and getting to see what ‘Elena’ is doing on the festival circuit. There are people who have lost people and who are sharing their story and bringing them forth to Petra and to the team, and people who haven’t, but still can just imagine what that would be like so it’s been a really moving experience and so I’ve been grateful to be part of the team

Journalist: So, as a mother, she would like to know how much of this film is a sort of therapeutic healing tool for you and your family, your mother also.

Petra: Well for my mother, it’s hard to sense but what she said was that in the process it was somehow therapeutic to talk about what happened. But at the same time extremely hard, like to go back to New York, to go to the house and she was so generous in going through the entire journey and giving everything she could and sharing all her memories. One thing that happened that was very beautiful and unexpected was that in the premier of the film in Brazil, –  it was in a Brazilian theatre with a thousand people – and many of them went to hug my mother at the end and she felt that it was like a groundbreaking moment of her grief, where she felt like she was finally able to share what she had wanted to share and didn’t manage to do it and she felt kind of redeemed in some way. For me, I feel that in some ways, like the therapeutic moments – because I did a lot of therapy before – and I felt like I had already processed the hardest parts of this trauma and this loss before making the film and somehow that’s what made me feel like I was able to make the film, that these issues weren’t troubling me. But of course, once I delved into it, I started to dream constantly about Elena, and it was beautiful, because these dreams were really transformed along the way. Like the first dream that I described was a dream of death and then other dreams that she was hurting herself and then the last dream we were dancing so they had like a very interesting transformation path. So, it was therapeutic in some way.

Journalist: So what compelled you to make this film in the first place?

Petra: Well the first place was this moment when I found her diaries and felt that there was something very interesting that I wanted to investigate about this confusion of identities because for me, to be 17 and find my sister’s diaries when she was 17 and having had no contact with her for 10 years because she was not there, and having known very little about her, just like my childhood memories, and then find these diaries that seemed like they were my own words but they were not, was something that was very hypnotizing. At the same time I felt that there were very few films, especially in Brazil none, about the issues in this transition from adolescence to adulthood from the female perspective. Like you have many films about coming of age but they are usually from the male perspective. And I wanted to kind of delve into that.

Journalist: So can you talk a bit about the footage that you did have of your sister and maybe sort of speculate on what you can imagine this film to be without the found footage if you hadn’t had the benefit of that found footage.

Petra: I think I would have tried to make a fiction.

Sara: It wouldn’t have worked as well. Your presence, you physically look alike but it’s also like, the stakes are much higher. Like the fact that you are actually her sister and that you are portraying her at different points…no, it wouldn’t work. I tell you right now, that’s speculation stomped on. [Laughs] But tell us a bit about that footage because there’s some really grainy sort of VHS footage, were you making a lot of home movies as a family? Is that where those come from?

Petra: Yes, as I said I had never seen any of that footage until I decided to make the film and then I went to my mother’s garage and went through all the VHSs and found this amazing material which for me was like a trip in time, like back to the past, back to the 80s, back to the time when I had no memories, so it was very, very moving and yeah, what happened was that my whole family has kind of a tradition of filming which comes from my Grandmother and was passed to my mother and then to my sister and she got this camera when I was born and it was a lot of luck in the sense of having had that footage and being able to go back and finding out things that somehow were already in me but I didn´t know, like the first scene I did that I mentioned, I finished it spinning and then when I went to the footage, in all the footage she’s spinning and spinning and spinning and the first thing I did was a little montage of her spinning over and over again with the music, ‘I am also dancing with the moon” at the end.

Journalist: Well thank you so much. I know there might be some quieter, more shy questions so don’t be afraid to ask these wonderful women questions outside of the theatre. Please remember to vote and to contribute to the crowd funding if you so desire. Thank you so much for the film. It is moving and beautiful and thank you so much everyone for being here.

Petra: Can we say one last thing? That we have a facebook page. elenathefilm .com and we invite anyone who wants to share their insights of the film or their own inconsolable memories or just a picture with a sign “Who was Elena?”, which a part of a campaign we’re doing. Thank you very much.

Journalist: Thank you.





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