Petra talks to Harper’s Bazaar Brazil
The director tells about the real story that originated the film about her sister in the double-page spread of Harper’s Bazaar Brazil
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THE ART OF TRANSFORMING PAIN
When the director Petra Costa was 7 years old, her sister, Elena, committed suicide. She told Bazaar how as an adult she managed to transform all the pain she suffered at that time into an award winning documentary
“I woke up with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I had just died. In my dream, I was sitting on a wall, playing with a bundle of electric wires, when I suddenly got a shock, a lethal shock. But no, it wasn’t me who was playing with the wires, it was Elena, who I haven’t seen in 20 years. I asked myself, “how can she have been gone for so long?” I tried to approach, before I could reach her, she was climbing a wall. Or was it me doing the climbing?
Thinking about possible interpretations for this dream, I went to have a coffee, which I couldn’t even swallow. Our identities were mixing up in my stomach together with an acute sense of death. Later on that day, on writing plot for a film, I tried to imagine the memories of my protagonist, when suddenly the sensation of that dream rose back up in my throat. I realized that the protagonist was me, and my memories were of Elena.
Elena is my sister and she died in December 1990. I was 7 and she was 20. Two years previously, she moved to New York with the dream of becoming a cinema actress – my mother and I went with her. Loneliness, the cold climate, the language barrier, the constant waiting for the callbacks from castings, slowly dragged her into a state of sadness. One day, in a desperate cry for help, Elena took aspirins with cachaça liquor. She was allergic to aspirin. When our mum got home, Elena had passed out. In hospital, she died by choking on her own vomit.
Eleven years later, in 2001, San Pablo, Brazil, when I was 18 I participated in a workshop with the ‘Teatro da Vertigem’ theatre group. I had three days to compose a scene based on the theme ‘The book of life”. Since I had never had any encounters with the Bible, the Torá or the Qur’an, nor any sacred book, I sought out the answer in my diaries. Rummaging through boxes of old notebooks, I found one that I had never seen before. The handwriting looked a bit like mine. What I read in those pages frightened me considerably. The diary talked about my most intimate fears and the anguish that I was living at that time; sensations I myself hadn’t been able to find words to express. I saw there my desires and my insecurities about art, love dilemmas, tensions with my parents, and in every word I was met with the strange feeling of a double, of feeling that my life had already been lived out by someone else and that my path was already laid down. It was as if, – although up until that point I had always imagined the contrary, – I had no longer had any control over my destiny. It was Elena’s diary.
In a mix of shock and fascination, I presented to the ‘Vertigem’ group a scene in which I mixed passages from Elena’s diary with my own. Days later I read Hamlet for a class and I saw, in Ophelia, an archetype that I realized was as much present in Elena as myself. It was something essentially feminine that lay in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, which is crushed when we are not able to deal with excess of desires and feelings. I left the class with a clear idea that I had before me the task of making a film about the transition from adolescence to adulthood from a female point of view. It would be about the Ophelia that I recognized in myself, in Elena and in so many other girls and women that I saw around me. It had never occurred to me to direct a film. But, at that moment, I had no shadow of a doubt about my obligation towards Elena, towards that Petra of the past, and for other young people going through the same experiences.
I knew that I still had a lot of ground to cover, that I was still lost in the chaos of a puzzle. And, within that maze of mirrors and tragedies, there were two taboos looming over me: New York and acting. They were those unspoken prohibitions, but they were in some way present nevertheless. For both my father and mother, I “could live anywhere in the world except New York; choose any profession except being an actress.” Although they disapproved, I already studied and worked with theatre. And, less than a year later, I moved to Manhattan.
It was precisely in New York that those two fears began to fade away. It was there that I looked in the mirror and I saw a reflection that was very different to Elena’s. I made friends, I fell in love, I re-signified that city for myself in a different light alongside other memories, other experiences. I went back to the house we used to live in. It is the place I had my 20th, 21st and 22nd birthday…and gradually I began to abandon the fear that, like Elena, I would never live past 21. It was there that I also became passionate about cinema and I found my own way of expressing myself, discovered my personal voice.
In July 2009, I was living in Rio de Janeiro, working in cinema and some time had gone past without me thinking about Elena. Until, one day, I woke up with the lingering fear of that dream. Not knowing if I was her or myself. The dream reminded me of that film I had promised for Elena. I realized that I needed to know more about my sister in order to recover my memories of her. I needed to know everything I could find about her life. I looked up her friends from theatre and dance circles: Fernando Alves Pinto, Alexandre Borges, Ângelo Antônio, Leal Baiolin, Letícia Teixiera, Rosana Seligmann, Gabriela Rodella, amongst many others. To my surprise, after 20 years, her memory still lived on in each one of them. I returned to New York with the phone book that Elena used in 1989 and I began to look up all of her friends, on the internet, in the yellow pages. I searched for her letters, her drawings, her photos. I found hours and hours of film footage on VHS tapes and, thanks to each and every one of those people and objects, Elena began to take shape, to take on form. For an entire year, almost on a monthly basis, she appeared in my dreams. The first was the image of her death. In the second, Elena would cut herself and I began to understand her pain. In the third, I would cook her pain in a pan until it evaporated. In the forth, I would fly over a forest and down in a glade, I would see Elena’s happiness, which was orange; the same colour as autumn trees. In the fifth and final dream, I, as a young child, would dance with my arms around her waist.
It has now been a year since I haven’t dreamt about Elena. I feel, today, that over time and as a result of that special alchemy that occurs between sound and image, the pain has dissolved, and become a memory. Elena now rests in peace on screen. And continues to dance.”