Elena is an art film expressing the director’s (Petra Costa) experience of losing her older sister, Elena, a significant and exciting caretaker from the time Petra was born until she was four. Elena danced with her, played imaginative games, and shared with Petra her aspirations for becoming an actress.
After Elena left Brazil for New York City to fulfill her dreams of being an actress, she sent back pictures, videos, and personal accounts to the family. Elena died when Petra was seven years old, and when Petra was 18, she found Elena’s diary. After reading it, she vowed to make a documentary about her and their relationship and what the loss meant to Petra. When it came time to gather the information for it, not only did she have Elena’s diary and family pictures and videos, she was able to locate a filmmaker in New York who had footage of Elena performing.
These materials form the basis of the visuals in the documentary, with Petra narrating. The cinematography (Janice D’Avila, Will Etchebehere, and Miguel Vassy) contributes to the story about as much as the words, with images of water, streetlights and shadows at night, close-ups of eyes and faces, and moving collages. The film is like a painting, with music by Ariel Henrique.
In the Q&A after the screening, Director Petra Costa spoke movingly about what her sister’s death meant to her, and how she has worked through her grief. She often spoke to Elena after a wise person said to her that she could always talk to Elena, who would be invisible but would always hear her. A turning point in Petra’s healing came when she was riding a golf cart on some friends’ property and it dawned on her while “going around in the cart, looking up at the trees, I realize you died forever.”
An artistic collage of Elena’s life and Petra’s grief in words, pictures, dance, and music.