Petra Costa has been trying to process the suicide of her older sister for over two decades now. The young docu director’s first feature, Elena, is a loving postmortem tone poem addressed to the departed as if to publicly remind her sister of her worth and to confront her for her cowardice. Bearing all the emotional brutality that follows the passing of a loved one, Costa’s film wraps raw intimacy with ethereal imitation to bring her sister back to life with lucid verve as a continued celebration of her lasting impact. In life, Elena was a Brazilian dancer turned movie bound New Yorker, dead set on becoming a star. Following in her sister’s footsteps, Petra has taken up the camera, performs before it and let’s her voice lay elegantly aloft the starkly personal collage she’s constructed.
This isn’t the first deeply personal work Costa has thrust into the non-fiction arena. In 2009, she unleashed Undertow Eyes upon the festival circuit, a cinematically poetic short that celebrates the lasting unconditional love of her grandparents in a similarly transcendental tenor. Both films employ extensive use of family photographs, home videos and introspective voice over, but while Undertow rejoices in the living with her grandparents’ fortuitously eloquent proclamations, Elena grieves for the deceased through genuine revisitations and blunt revelations. Too young to remember every detrimental detail of the event, Costa asks her mom to return to the apartment where her sister was found. Their raw experiences of deep regret, longing and love are contrasted by the cold phrasing of the coroners examination. This blunt inclusion seems just a taste of the rage that now lives within them both, but neither Petra or her gallant mother will ever forget the Elena they loved so dearly.
Long before she sunk into the grips of depression, Elena was a starry eyed little girl, driven by the dream to become an actress. Growing up, their family had a video camera which she seized as her own. She thought of the lens as her audience to dance before, sing to, and eventually, as a means to construct her own short films in which she cast her family in the supplementary roles. It is in these moments of impassioned performance that Petra reproduces the soul of her sister’s character and represents the core of their relationship. Elena was her big sister, she cared for her, entertained her and made her proud with playful and loving attention. We see her pirouette in slow motion at home and on stage, and with her camcorder and a youthful innocence, she directs the moon to follow suit. She also taught her the meaning of personal drive and dedication, but this is the tragic irony of their relationship – with the gifts given by her sister, Petra laments her passing as means of processing unfathomable feelings.
As overwhelmingly personal as the film is, it feels wholly necessary not only as an artistic expression, but as a transformative journey from the perplexing throes of adolescence to the fully realized form of womanhood. Now an adult, Petra was only seven when her sister passed and in the tail end of her teens when she discovered her sister’s revealing diaries which shaped the feature. And while Undertow used water as a natural metaphor as being overcome with emotion, here Costa employs water as a means for emotional cleansing and assumed character. In the film’s most visually alluring moments, an assemblage of women float down a body of water as if to represent the buoyancy of the human spirit in the wake of tragedy. Beautifully poetic yet penetratingly raw in its portraiture, Elena picks apart every devastating emotion felt when a loved one passes and seems to take us in with a knowing embrace, letting us know that we can move forward, but we won’t forget. This is the intimacy of death through the lens of familiar empathy and disappointment – hard to watch, harder to turn away.
Reviewed on April 29th at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival – International Spectrum Programme. 82 min