Rooftop Films Filmakers Profile: Petra Costa (Director: ELENA)
‘ELENA’ is the feature documentary debut from Brazilian director Petra Costa charts her poetic journey in search of her sister, Elena, whose volatile life moves from their South American home to the gridded brownstones of New York City, fluidly capturing the spirit of loss through home video, tape recordings, beautifully realized artistic interludes, and a deep love of her sibling.
Before embarking on her first stay in New York to pursue her career as a film actress, Elena gives a young Petra a seashell, telling her to listen to it for sounds of the ocean, to communicate with her, to remember her by — an act that Petra takes to heart as an adult when she continues to search for Elena through the echoing sounds she left behind.
We spoke with Petra Costa in anticipation of the films screening at the 2013 Rooftop Films Summer Series at The Old American Can Factory rooftop on Saturday, August 10, 2013. The events begin at 8pm with live music leading into the SXSW Weekend screening of ‘ELENA‘ and followed by a courtyard reception.
For More Information on Rooftop Films & TICKETS to ‘ELENA’ Click – HERE
When did you first realize that the documentary form was the route you wanted to go down in order to tell this highly personal story? How do the parameters of the documentary allow for such a narrative to be told effectively?
It is hard to track down the exact moment, especially because I do not consider ELENA to be a documentary, but a hybrid on the border of both documentary and fiction. But it became clear to me that the film would not be a straight fiction once I found the archival footage. We had never seen this footage before and it was extremely moving to see Elena in movement for the first time. It was a tunnel of time that brought me to a moment which I had no memory of: the beginning of the 80s when my parents were not yet divorced, had just come out of hiding, and “our family seemed to live an American commercial from the 50s,” as I say in the film. That footage was extremely powerful and brought Elena alive in way that a fiction could never have. It was Elena herself – her dance, her way of moving, talking, her relationship with me (which was enveloped with so much love) that became the spinal chord of the film.
I believe that it is more the essay form of filmmaking rather than the documentary form, which allowed for this narrative to be told effectively. I found the essay form (present in films of Chris Marker, Agnes Varda and others) to be really suited for my desire to delve into my memories of Elena with poetic freedom. In my view, in this format, you are not guided so much by the footage as in normal documentaries, but by the actual script of the narration. You can change the words and shift the film to a completely different direction. And this was the process, I constantly had a voice-recording device in the editing room and we would edit the images and construct the script in conjunction, in a parallel dance.
Through this form we could weave what I see as the three layers of the film: my memories of Elena; the search for her path through her diaries, the city of New York and the interviews given by my mother and Michael (the last person to see Elena); and the archival footage.
Can you explain how ‘Elena’ went from concept into production? The film is supported by the Tribeca Film Institute’s Latin America Media Fund; how did this affiliation present itself? What other routes did you go down in order to get the production off the ground?
The first funder of the film was Oi (a Brazilian telephone company) through a law that exists in Brazil which allows private companies to pay part of their taxes supporting cultural projects. Once we had a first cut, we applied to the Tribeca Film Institute’s Latin America Media Fund, which offered a great opportunity to meet people of the industry. There we met with the Ford Foundation who gave further funding making it possible for us to finish the film.
As ‘Elena’ is a combination of home video archives and several other media elements, did you find the editing of the film to be the most difficult physical aspect of the production?
Definitely. I spent more than 800 days full time in the editing room, which could amount to 6400 hours. It was in the editing room that the film was made, especially because it was not scripted before. I first filmed, then we started editing, and it wasn’t until after I had a good view of the material that Carolina Ziskind (the co-script writer) and I started to write the script.
‘Elena’ has received support from several prominent filmmakers, especially fellow Brazilian Fernando Meirelles who explains its power at the personal level, essentially promoting viewers own insight into their experiences/relationship with the film’s subject matter. Reading through this section on the films website I see that it adds a tremendous human dimension to the film, especially in its objectivity to (ultimately) subjective experiences. Was this “insight” something that came as a surprise to you or did you always mean to relate ‘Elena’ to others’ personal stories?
Something that we dreamt about while we were editing the film was that in the moment that the film would reach the public we would build an internet platform where the public could share with us their own “inconsolable memories.” We wanted the film to be an invitation for each spectator to dance with their memories, with their own grief so that inspiration could also come out of their losses. However, it was a wonderful surprise to see how natural this process actually was. Since our first screening at the Brasilia Film Festival we were showered with beautiful “insights” that came from each spectator’s encounter with the film. And, for me, a new art form is born from this encounter.
In certain cases of personal reflection through creative mediums like this the ultimate outcome for the creator is a sense of “where do I go from here?” As your personal (and production) journey came to an end on ‘Elena’, how did you view the project at a personal level? Did you find the experience of producing the film gave you a sense of closure to this particular life chapter?
Yes, I definitely find that ELENA gave a sense of closure to a life chapter that I see going from when I was 7 to when I was 21 (the moment I became older than Elena). I started making the film when I was 26, so I had already some distance from that life chapter do be able to portray it and was still close enough to it so that it had meaning and relevance. I don’t believe I would have been able to make the film now, as I am 30 and feel already quite distant from that moment in my life, from what I call the Ophelia complex and the difficulties of coming of age. Since I was 18, when I found my sister’s diaries and identified myself completely with them, I promised that one day I would make a film about this: about Elena, her life and tragic ending and this confusion of identity between two sisters. Now that I have fulfilled this promise I feel ready to delve upon other projects.