Film Review of ELENA, by Professor Michelle Farrell

By Michelle Farrell, for Fairfield University – September, 2015


Petra Costa’s first full-length film, Elena, premiered in the United States during the Brazilian Film Festival in New York City in June 2013; it was presented in Portuguese with English subtitles. Before arriving in New York, the film had already won a selection of awards on the international film festival circuit. The film accolades include best documentary in the areas of best directing, audience award, editing and production design at the Brasília Film Festival, and best documentary in the 2013 Films de Femmes annual French film festival.

This poetic and fluid documentary tells the story of Petra Costa’s sister Elena. Petra travels from Brazil to New York to study filmmaking and acting at Columbia University just as her deceased sister had done decades following the Brazilian dictatorship.

Through her first person narration in conversation with her absent sister, Costa attempts to find the memory of Elena in the streets and sounds of New York City as she follows her dream to become a filmmaker. It is a virtual dialogue between an off-camera first person narrator and an absent departed sister who committed suicide years before. The camera accompanies the impossible dialogue as Petra’s off-camera narrative voice talks directly to her sister attempting to make sense of the harsh worlds of depression, adolescent dreams, film, theater, suicide, and the diaspora of a generation of Brazilians during post-dictatorial Brazil.

Through a lyrical collage of her sister’s home videos, private diaries, and even the archival footage of her sister’s original Columbia University interview, the film’s narration twists the documentary genre to include an intimate story. Through the archival videos and voice-overs, Petra’s deceased sister, Elena, becomes the film’s protagonist coming to life through film. The documentary begins with the sounds of water followed by images of Petra in New York City, before changing to a close up of a floating and ethereal Elena immersed in a stream. As Petra travels, the off-camera voice explains: “Minha mãe falou que poderia morar em qualquer lugar do mundo menos em Nova Iorque.” The mother’s wishes are clearly ignored, as the camera follows Petra through the unmistakable streets of New York while making a film to connect with her lost sister. Both film and New York City are unavoidable realities for these two sisters despite their mother’s warnings, afraid to lose another daughter to New York, film, and eventually suicide. The film becomes a tribute to filmmaking, New York City and its Brazilian diaspora. It brings her sister’s memory to life.

The camera accompanies the sister’s journey to ‘speak’ with Elena through reoccurring images of moving water enveloping the lost sister. Paralleling the constant aquatic imagery, there is a liquid quality to the travel back and forth between Brazil and the United States in the film.

There is also an unsolidified mixture of archival footage that Elena herself took and narrated prior to her death combined with contemporary footage that Petra narrates. This liquid quality confirms the permeable boundaries of documentary, authorship, and the complex national origin of the film hovering between Brazil and the United States.

The film also touches upon the greater social context of the sisters’ lives that includes the complex realities of Brazil during Elena’s adolescence. Elena is thirteen years older than Petra, and her childhood took place during the oppressive years of the Brazilian dictatorship. In the documentary, there are references to this painful period in Brazilian history as Elena’s early video diaries and short films recorded during the dictatorship all take place within the confines of the family home. There is no sense of shared public space or a Brazilian urban landscape. This footage is in stark contrast with the later images of life in the streets of New York.

The audience is reminded of the social context of Brazil during Elena’s adolescence when she explains in a recorded interview with Columbia University her reasons for leaving Brazil to study film and acting. During the footage of the interview the audience is reminded that Elena’s childhood and adolescence took place during a drastically different Brazil from the cultural and economic boom that the country experiences today. An adolescent Elena explains to her interviewer that she wanted to come to New York to study and act in films since in Brazil there is almost no film industry and the country makes at most one feature film per year. While she physically leaves an oppressive period in Brazilian history, she then begins to enter another form of oppression: her battles with her own depression in New York.

In the end, making a film using the footage of her sister’s diaries, home videos, and photographs, Petra’s film helps her sister to realize her original dream of making a life in the movies. Elena, the protagonist of this documentary film, is more present in the film than the living Petra, who remains during most of the film an off-camera voice.

This film is an exceptional example of the artistic possibilities of creating an intimate and personal documentary through a mosaic of genres and archival footage. Beyond its impressive aesthetic and technical value for film study, it is an outstanding addition to the representations of Brazil. This story of a young Brazilian woman coming to the United States for college, whilst battling depression and determining her place in New York City, aids teachers in the discussion of these important topics with college students.

Farrell, Michelle Leigh, “Film Review of “Elena” dir. by Petra Costa” (2015). Modern Languages & Literature Faculty Publications. Paper 26.

A letter about Elena

A short time after Elena passed away, her mother Li An received a letter from Barbara Fisher Williamson, a teacher at the Eugene Lang College of The New School of Liberal Atrs of New York City.

On it, Barbara writes that Elena was one of her most brilliant students. She also expresses the joy it was teaching a student that, according to her, was hard to find in the academic environment. The teacher also depicts Elena as this beautiful, ardently willing soul, a clear reference to George Eliot`s Middlemarch, a book the young girl was reading in her classes.

You can read the letter below. We bring you the original, full version of it, shared by the family of Elena.

Letter to Li An

Conjuring ELENA

By Michael Sicinski – Fandor – 12/17/2014

Elena_maquiagemELENA, the 2012 essay film by Brazilian American director Petra Costa, is an act of conjuring, an effort to pin down and solidify a memory that the filmmaker possesses only in fragments and fleeting tricks of the light. It is essentially two stories in one. The first is that of Costa’s older sister Elena, who moved from São Paolo to New York City in hopes of making it as an actress and a dancer. Eventually felled by crippling depression, Elena committed suicide at the age of twenty. The other story is that of Petra herself, and her ability to piece together her childhood memories of her late sister. Petra was rather young when she lost Elena, and so she is working through a small collection of material left behind—videotapes of Elena’s experimental theatre in Brazil, her appearance in home movies, and her audiotaped letters home—in order to regenerate an image of who Elena was, part factual and part speculative.

Costa’s film is no conventional documentary portrait. The hard evidence of Elena’s life, of who she was and of the relationship she and her sister had, is scant but resonant. Elena uses these artifacts as anchor points within a tapestry that is diaphanous and permeable, resulting in a film about memories and ghosts, identities that merge and separate. Close-ups of gently rushing water, with white light glinting off the surface, serve as one of Elena’s dominant images, and at times the water is a scrim or field, obscuring our vision of what’s in front of us, while at other times (particularly the end), we see adult Petra and her mother floating on the water with an earned calm, buoyed by memory rather than burdened by it.

Costa’s use of point of view is consistently ambiguous, not always readily identifiable with a seeing subject. Her camera glides along surfaces, it explores textures, and in doing so it sometimes seems to move independently of Costa’s own perspective. With its layering of images, often depicting Elena or the young Petra through wade swaths of red and golden light, Elena emphasizes the screen as an active space of things submerged and retrieved, a pool of visual thoughts answering to the tug of affect and trauma.

elenablog9At times imperceptibly, the point of view will align itself with that of Elena, or Petra, or some combination of the two. Tight shots follow the female protagonist through the streets of Manhattan at night, with the lights and crowds forming a kind of vortex around her body. The forced perspective and warped edges of the frame recall Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting Elena / Petra’s inner world as both a site of liberation and a zone of mental assault.

If I were to compare Elena to any single film, it would be Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, another very personal, virtually handmade essay experiment based around familial loss and recovery. Like Caouette, Costa treats images and sounds from her past as concrete objects or talismans, using them not only to narrate her own story but to conduct a sort of audio-visual séance, bringing the specters of the past back to life in order to reckon with them, and ultimately to embrace them with love and forgiveness.

Turning Pain Into Poetry

By Working Actress – 11/24/2014

elena8Friday was kind of a wild day.  A busy day of invoicing, conference calls, marketing myself, accepting bookings, declining bookings and I had the full intention of ending the day with my screening at Disney Studios followed by going out for a lovely meal.  During the week my union hall invited me to a foundation event.  SAG Foundation is great.  They offer tons of free events throughout the year (screenings, speakers, classes and more.)  This one was to meet Tim Robbins and Petra Costa after viewing her documentary Elena.  It was at lunch time so I thought “sure, why not?”  A nice mid day break on a Friday.

I read a brief synopsis of the film and thought it was right up my alley.  A woman leaves Brazil to start a career as an actress in NYC.  Yay!  Sounds cool.  About 15 minutes into the film I suddenly realized that I had no idea what this film was about. I didn’t know it was going to be so sad and depressing.  My first instinct was to leave.  I felt I had no business being there.  My family and I are still struggling over the loss of Sarah and it seems sometimes like the pain is getting worse rather than better.  We all have good days and bad days but I think the holidays will always bring the pain to the forefront.

For some reason I stayed and watched the entire film.  It was so hard to not burst out crying but somehow I held it together.  When Petra and Tim came out and sat down to chat with us I found out why I stayed.  Petra spoke of the pain of losing her sister and as she spoke you could see how she was healing through telling her story.  The documentary was not your traditional documentary.  It was told with VHS footage from the 80’s, cassette recordings, news clippings, and her own narration and re-enactments.  She went thru 3 DPs, 3 editors, and many other crew members because the piece took so long to finish.  All of them made a significant contribution to the piece and she ended up with the story she wanted to tell.  She was a delightful young woman.

NOVOS Elena no palco _25I3026Tim’s story was equally as moving.  He met Petra at a film festival in Belgium and she handed him a DVD of the film which he actually watched when he returned to LA and then signed on as Executive Producer.  He said he is handed a lot of DVD’s but for some reason he decided to watch this one.  He said he wouldn’t describe it as a documentary…….but a poem.  They both chatted about filmmaking, rejection, the hardships of this acting life.  We are all so creative, have so many stories to tell, and we often get tripped up by real life.  We run out of money, someone in our family gets sick, or we lack support from family and friends.  A multitude of issues can pop up and it was interesting to hear Tim talk about those challenges.  We always think that movie stars have it made and we forget that they are dealing with personal issues as well.  He said that for him the most difficult part of filmmaking is the casting process.  Because he is an actor too so he knows how much time and effort actors put into the audition process (we get coached, study the script for hours, read the entire screenplay, select clothing, arrange babysitters, drive for miles, sit in waiting rooms, and then wait.)  We are told to forget the minute we walk out the door, but who can do that?  It is much easier said than done.  Tim said it is so painful to see soooo many talented people come thru for one role.  Only one person is going to book it and that hurts him.

They both spoke of finding the purpose of the film to drive the filmmaking process.  Petra’s purpose was to not only heal herself but to get a message out to so many people who were suffering from depression.  It made me think of my own short film I really want to make.  I got off to a good start this Fall (revised the screenplay, Ryan made my trailer,) but real life got in the way and I got side tracked.  I fully intend to get it done in 2015 and get it into the film festival circuit.  I wrote this film for Sarah.  She was to play my daughter.  The day I wrote it was significant in finding my purpose.  She had just beat that first tumor but was feeling extremely sad because she couldn’t start college.  The doctor felt it was too much too soon.  So, while her friends were all starting their Freshman year, some going out of state, Sarah had no plans other than getting strong after undergoing treatment.  We had a long chat about that and it broke my heart to see her so sad. The minute I got home I wrote this screenplay.  I took it to her the next day and she was over the top excited.  She always wanted to act, model, and do voice over.  This was something she could certainly look forward to and she was thrilled.  As we all know she got another tumor and the film did not happen that year.  In fact I put everything away with no intention of ever shooting it.  Earlier this year a close friend suggested I take it back out and shoot it in Sarah’s honor.  I struggled with how to get started.  I actually don’t know a lot about filmmaking.  I know a lot about acting…..but filmmaking is a whole other world. Tim’s advice helped me see how to mesh the two worlds.  It is all about being very focused, and being passionate about your story.  I was suddenly filled with hope. I feel confident that I can put together a strong supportive team and get this film done for Sarah.

After such a heavy emotional day it was kind of nice to drive over to the Disney Studios in Burbank, park in Zorro, and walk down Donald Duck Lane to get to the screening room.  But I did go to sleep with visions of making this film, honoring Sarah, and turning my pain into poetry.

LifeRaft: Q&A with ELENA – Petra Costa, Tim Robbins and Dennis Baker

Los Angeles – 11/21/2014


Watch Elena -the film director Petra Costa talk about the impacts the work had on her mother and other issues in this clip provided by the Screen Actors Guild. It was filmed last week during a Q&A moderated by Dennis Baker in LA.

“Today what my mother says is that it’s wonderful that this film can relieve her of that pain.”

Strikingly lyrical documentary

By C. Cassady – Video Librarian – 11/28/2014

dvdFilmmaker Petra Costa’s Elena is a strikingly lyrical documentary profile, blending surreal avant-garde scenes with family home movies and low-resolution archival videos. Costa’s narration serves as an open letter read to her ill-fated sister Elena, a rising Brazilian stage actress who made the decision to relocate to New York City for further theatrical studies and serious pursuit of her acting/modeling career. Despite some initial professional excitement (she met Francis Ford Coppola while he was shooting The Godfather: Part III), nothing really developed, and Elena battled seesawing weight and mood swings. Costa and their divorced mother (a onetime leftist political refugee) eventually joined Elena, but the older sister’s emotional decline was irreversible. Late in the film, Costa reveals that a history of suicidal depression runs in the female side of her family, along with a propensity to pursue acting and art as forms of escape/release. Given the mental health history, this might even be considered a type of self-therapy for Elena’s pain-wracked survivors. A visual ode that is the farthest thing from a talking-head, white lab-coat piece, this biographical portrait—presented in a manufacture-on-demand DVD-R version—is recommended.

Watch: Petra Costa On ‘Elena,’ Brazilian Documentary Films and More

By Zainab Akande – Indiewire – 10/16/2014

“There is a strong history of documentary films, but not inward-looking,” said Petra Costa on the nature of Brazilian documentaries.

elenapetraIn a talk hosted by KCRW radio host Matt Holzman earlier this month, Brazilian director Petra Costa of the documentary “Elena” sat alongside executive producer Tim Robbins to speak about the film which looks at Costa’s journey in retracing the footsteps of her older sister, Elena.

Elena moved from Brazil to New York with dreams of becoming a famous actress–only to commit suicide while Costa was still a child. Costa uses film to both remember and find closure, which she discusses at length. The screening and talk took place earlier this month as part of IDA’s 2014 Documentary Screening Series.

>> Here’s five short clips!

Brazil’s Documentary of the year aims for Hollywood

By El País Newspaper – 10/8/2014

Translation: Lucas Hackradt

Director Petra Costa and Executive Producer Tim Robbins promote ELENA, the story of a personal search rooted in a familiar drama, in Los Angeles

Tim Robbins anda Petra Costa in special screening in Los Angeles

Tim Robbins anda Petra Costa in special screening in Los Angeles

The dream of the Brazilian actress Elena Costa of traveling to New York ended in a familiar tragedy in 1990 when she was only 20. Trapped in a deep depression even after succeeded attempts from her mother to bring her back from darkness, Costa died. Her sister Petra was seven. In the documentary ELENA Petra Costa delves in the deepest causes of depression and brings back her sister’s childhood memories and relation with the family through home made videos and recorded testimonies, in order to explain the inexplicable. “I believe that when you look at the true depth of yourself you can reach places that will mean a lot to other people”, says Petra.

Petra Costa (Belo Horizonte, 1983) was raised in São Paulo and a decade later, after that tragedy, ended up doing the two things her mother had told her not to do: she moved to New York and became an actress. In her film, she explains how choosing this path was some sort of search for her sister ten years after grief had devastated her. In the film, she compares her own childhood with that of her sister. Elena was born clandestine of parents that, involved in political struggles, were not able to give her the same attention she would get should they live in a democracy. Costa explains that her mother had always kept her distance from Elena. One of the film’s strongest scenes is when the mother of both girls and Petra describe “their guilt” with anguish.

The film is also a story of depression, which Costa believes affects a lot of women of her own generation, at least in Brazil. Although she does not call it depression: “It is the feeling of not fitting in and of not knowing how to fit in”, explained Petra last Wednesday in Los Angeles. “When women become women they also become vulnerable”. Her sister’s aspirations clashed with an industry that required much from its actors. Petra defines it as “the woman who cannot wait, but is obliged to do so”.

Elena has actor Tim Robbins and film director Fernando Meirelles as executive producers. Both joined the project when the film was almost done after seeing the possibilities it had of becoming something great, and both help it with their names in the marketing of the film. Tim Robbins says it all began in a party. Petra Costa came to him and gave him a copy of Elena’s DVD during the International Film Festival of Berlin. “It happens to me a lot”, he said during the Los Angeles debate. His own life story convinced him to get involved in the project.

The documentary has been screened in New York and two more times this week in Los Angeles. With this, Elena starts its promotion to the season of Hollywood prizes which culminate in February and March with the Golden Globes and the Oscar. Robbins, who has already won both as an actor, does not make any predictions: “I also do not know how these prizes work”, he answered our reporter.

“When I first saw it, I was struck by it and started thinking of what I could do to help a film with such a great potential in such a competitive market”, commented Robbins after the screening. “I thought that this is a film that can help so many other people in the same situation. It needs a lot of effort to tell this story in the way it has been told. It is raw. It is as if someone had cut their veins open in front of everyone else”, said him while showing his own wrists. “It is a very sad film, but it is also a very beautiful one. It is a type of film I had never seen before”.

Another reason why Robbins joined the production was to make known the history of the years of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985), which is usually still unknown outside Latin America compared to the ones in Argentina or Chile. It is today, almost three decades after it came to an end, that society starts to reconcile with its past and people start pressuring the government to open the secret files of the military. “In Brazil we do not have heroes”, said Costa on Tuesday for an audience of US-Americans on the consequences of the dictatorship. “We do not celebrate our own history as the US does, we are more cynical towards it. If you have nothing to celebrate, you have also nothing to remember”. That is why her film is also an allegory of the therapeutical necessity of reviewing the past in depth, as painful as this process might be, and to remember.

CBS TV recommends ELENA

By Yadires Nova-Salcedo – CBS Boston – 10/10/2014

impermanent cort

If you like movies, especially international and independent films, do we have a treat for you! The Arlington International Film Festival (AIFF) will be celebrating its 4th year of cinematic journeys from around the world during October 15-19. Movie goers can visit Regent Cinema and watch this years’ winners, including the film that won in the “Best of Festival” category – “Elena”, an intensely personal documentary essay about a Brazilian dancer and aspiring actress who settles in New York City and eventually commits suicide. On this edition of Centro, WBZ’s Yadires Nova-Salcedo talks to the film festival’s Executive Director, April Ranck. Tune in!

4th Annual Arlington International Film Festival (AIFF)
October 15-19, 2014
Regent Theatre
(857) 209-1122

“Best of Festival”
Petra Costa, Director | Brazil | 2012

“Best Documentary”
BOTSO: The Teacher from Tbilisi
Tom Walters, Director | USA | 2013

“Best Narrative”
The Forgotten Kingdom
Andrew Mudge, Director | USA | 2013

“Best Narrative Short”
The Man Who Fed His Shadow
Mario Garefo, Director | Greece | 2012

“Best Documentary Short”
NOT ANYMORE: A Story of Revolution
Matthew VanDyke, Director | USA | 2013

ELENA: an artistic documentary that takes us on a personal journey screens at the IDA Screening Series

By Humberto Mendez – Prophecy Girl Films – 9/10/2014

Executive Producer Tim Robbins with Director Ana Petra Costa and moderator Matt Holzman of KCRW. Photo by Humberto Mendez.

Executive Producer Tim Robbins with Director Ana Petra Costa and moderator Matt Holzman of KCRW. Photo by Humberto Mendez.

On October 7th, the International Documentary Association screened “Elena”, an artistic documentary narrated by Director Petra Costa. Along with old home videos, dream-like recreations were used to go along with Petra’s narration. The subject of the film, Elena, was the sister of the director, and the film is a very intimate tale about Elena’s suicide and how it affected her and her family.

The film is Executive Produced by Tim Robbins, who hopped on board after Petra Costa sent him a copy of the film. Robbins was very interested in the conflict in Brazil, and much of the initial cuts of the film depicted Elena’s parents in Brazil as they dealt with conflict there. Unfortunately, most of the Brazil footage did not make the final cut of the film. Tim Robbins, however, still believed in the film and stuck around as Executive Producer.

The novelty of the film is in the stylish way it is told, but the way the film is presented takes it away from the documentary realm and goes more into an experimental narrative. Another thing that sets “Elena” apart from other films is that the blame for the suicide is partly put on Elena’s parents. Her parents were Communists fighting the dictatorship in Brazil and, as a way to protect their daughters in case they were killed, they weren’t as loving as “they should have been”. For me, however, this was a disturbing reason for suicide. I had just seen the documentary “Rocks In My Pockets”, that better deals with suicide and how it is a disease rather than something that comes out of lack of love. The fact that depression was not the cause of Elena’s suicide, and rather the cause was the fact that she was “unloved” really bothered me. Especially because Elena was loved – her sister made a whole film about her!

Overall, I felt that the added dream-like sequences took away from what could have been a more powerful familial look into depression and suicide. Instead, the film is a personal letter to the directors sister, and the audience are spectators intruding into a private world that sometimes feels very far away from us.

“Elena” is worth a watch, but it is better to go into the film knowing what you’re about to see, rather than walking in unaware.



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