Petra talks about ELENA to a Brazilian magazine
The director tells the real story that originated the film about her sister in the double-page spread of Claudia
“It’s an inconsolable memory”
Filmmaker Petra Costa, 29, was only seven when her sister committed suicide. At the age of 26 she decided to make a movie so that she wouldn’t let her fall into the “world of forgotten ones”. Here, she tells the real story that originated Elena , a full-length movie to be released in May and which has helped to rescue this interrupted relationship.
“The first memory I have is Elena the day she took me into the sea. I was 3 and used to play only on the sand. Then she took me in her arms and we started going deeper, crossing the waves, until we crossed the part where the waves were breaking. We reached placid and still waters. It was a discovery for me. That was a new world, a sea I hadn’t known. Later, I remember my seventh birthday very well, when she, already at the age of twenty, was leaving to New York. Before the trip, she said: “Petra, you are turning seven and this is the worst age there is. I will give you this shell (one of the big ones, that when put close to the ear, allow you to listen to the sound of the sea) and I will take one with me. When you need me, call me and we will talk through them”.
Elena always wanted to be an actress and decided to move to the United States to make this dream come true. Few months later, my mother and I went to live there too. Elena was sad and frustrated because her work expectations were not reaching what she looked for. When we got there, I saw her pain, even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on. After six months living in New York, I was well-adapted and happy. At my school, there was an activity in which the students took an object they really cared for to the classroom and talked about it to their classmates. One of those days, Elena woke me up and I asked her to help me choose what to take. She brought me a bag of cookies. Her attitude didn’t make sense, I need something dear, that deserved an explanation. Elena was weird, heavy. I ended up choosing a little stuffed dog. It was the last time I saw her. A cousin picked me up at school and in the end I slept at her house. In the morning, when I went back to our apartment, I saw the look of shock on my mother’s face. I immediately noticed that someone had died. I asked who, and she answered: Elena. The only I could say was: “It hurt my feelings”. Nobody never hid from me that she had committed suicide (through the intake of alcohol and pills).
We came back to Brasil – and I, who had until then been an uninhibited child, became shy as a result of sadness. I started seeing a psychologist, but I remember many adults telling me not to show my pain. They said that my mother was already weakened by all that had happened and that I shouldn’t worry her with my suffering. Three years after Elena’s death, a friend of mine lost his mother and I started having panic attacks. The idea that my mother would die became an obsession. I used to make dozens of promises, determined to stop this from happening. She, on the other had, was afraid that I would choose to be an actress and live in New York.
During my adolescence, I started having theater classes, what helped me release my sadness. I became less shy. As I grew up, people kept saying how much I was starting to look like Elena. Deep inside, I also feared that my destiny was the same as my sister’s. And in fact, in the end I went through a way that was quite similar to hers. I sat an exam to enter a theater course at several different universities and, at the age of 20, I enrolled in this course at Columbia University, in New York. In fact, my experience was quite different from hers. I felt good and didn’t get lost in the city. I was happy. At the age of 26, I dreamt of Elena. She was on a wall, wrapped in wires from an electric fence and trying to get electric jolts. But it was I who died as a result. When I woke up, I decided that I would make a movie about her. I had to pull Elena out of the “world of forgotten ones”. I started to read her diaries, watch her videos and listen to the tapes she had recorded. I interviewed around 50 people that had been close to her. I gave myself entirely to this job, that saw very difficult moments. In it, I got to know Elena from the inside: the pitch of her voice, the way she talked… I was also angry at her at certain times. And I found fascinating traits, that continue to inspire me. I learned the importance of giving oneself to something- she didn’t do anything by halves, she plunged into every single thing. And it was as if at every discovery she made, I got a brand new sister. The problem is that I lost her soon after, at the next fraction of second. It was gaining her to lose her.
In this process I found out that she had reached the hospital alive and even seemed able to recover, but died because she was out and choked on her own vomit. Reading the autopsy and seeing that her heart weighed 300 grams was very hard. During the three I worked on the film, I had five emblematic dreams with Elena. the first was the one with the electric fence. Among those that came after, there was one in which she appeared in a room, with several sharp objects and the people who were there were expecting her to hurt herself in front of them. I tried to stop it. In another dream of the series, I flew over a forest that had an orange part, as it is during Fall. A voice then said that Elena was to be found in this part of the forest, in the good part, and she was fine. Now that the project is over, Elena is not a knot in my memories anymore. When I think of her today, I can see her clearly. The process served for me to elaborate and better accept pain for her death. But it is still an inconsolable memory. I have taken part in screenings in several countries and I have never watched the movie after it was ready. Another point I find positive is that those who watch Elena feel like talking about her memories and facing their own inconsolable memories.”