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A Family Tragedy

Finding solace through film

Petra Costa’s mother told her she could live anywhere except New York, and become anything but an actor. Those prohibitions were her mother’s attempt to shield her younger daughter from following in the footsteps of Petra’s older sister, who committed suicide in 1990 while studying theatre in New York.

Despite her mother’s bans, Costa was drawn to Manhattan and theatre. But, unlike her sister, Elena, Costa thrived in New York City and, ultimately, turned hazy memories of her sister—dead at 20 from an intentional combination of aspirin (to which she was allergic) and alcohol—into a film about her quest to understand her sister and herself.

Costa scrutinized old family movies, read her sister’s scribbled diaries, and interviewed friends and family. The result is Elena, an 82-minute film combining documentary and fiction, which plumbs the sisters’ influence on each other and picks at the scar of memory, loss, and pain. She describes Elena in the film as “my inconsolable memory made of shadow and stone.” In its final images, still women garbed in pale diaphanous dresses float, Ophelia-like, on their backs in water.

Elena premiered at the 45th Festival de Brasilia do Cinema Brasileiro last September and scooped up four prizes in the documentary category: best director, best art-direction, best film-editing, and audience award for best film. (It’s also won awards in Croatia, Poland, France, and Mexico.) About 50,000 Brazilians have seen it, making it the country’s most-viewed documentary so far in 2013, says Costa, noting that documentaries are rarely seen by more than 5,000 viewers; Elena is one of the most popular documentaries from Brazil for 2012 and 2013, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Web site.

Costa, 30, says she feels gratified by the attention, because suicide remains a forbidden topic in her homeland. “I felt it was important to talk about it, particularly in Brazil, where it’s extremely taboo,” she says in a phone interview from her home there. “Until now, there were almost no articles about suicide. And there are almost no support groups. So it’s a subject matter that…the film is bringing much more into debate.” Costa also notes that since women are under-represented in Brazilian cinema, and are most often portrayed as prostitutes, she wants to show another perspective. She’s received e-mails and Facebook messages from grateful viewers who say Elena helped them process their loss of a parent or sibling. Costa was 7 when her sister died; she withdrew, displayed obsessive-compulsive behavior, and claimed that she, too, wanted to die.

A native of Brazil, Costa spent six months of her childhood in New York City with her mother and sister. Despite her mother’s misgivings, she landed at Barnard. (She’d applied to several universities, but once accepted into the College, she knew it had everything she wanted.) “The moment I arrived in New York, the phantoms of my sister quickly dissolved,” she says, and she no longer feared that Elena’s tragic fate would become hers. “I quickly started to make my own path and really fell in love with the whole atmosphere, just being in such a rich environment, exchanging so many ideas, and being challenged intellectually in so many ways. I felt clearly that I found my identity,” she says, and remains indebted to Bruce Robbins, a Columbia University professor in the department of English and comparative literature.

Costa found work after graduation with a television company, but it left her unsatisfied. She enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science, earning a master’s degree in 2008 in health, community, and development, with the idea of aiding trauma survivors in Brazil. “That educational background and the related research inspired me and helped me, and was a kind of theoretical background for Elena,” she says.

Filmmaking, though, proved irresistible. Costa directed and produced Undertow Eyes (2009), a 20-minute film about her grandparents before turning her focus on her late sister. Elena took two-and-a-half years to make and was funded with support from the Tribeca Film Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Brazilian telecommunications company Oi. It is being screened at film festivals around the world and slated to be shown in Brooklyn on August 10 as part of the Rooftop Films series.

Costa initially was concerned about how her mother, Li An, would react to seeing painful, intimate family history played out on the screen. But Costa says her mother encouraged her to make Elena—and participated in the project despite her enduring grief—because her daughter’s suicide had been looping endlessly in her brain for years. “After the release of the film, she had some very therapeutic effects of having it seen by so many people, releasing a lot of good energy,” she says. “In some way, she celebrates and feels redeemed from her guilt. That was completely unexpected.”

For her next film, which is being shot in France and Denmark, Costa is collaborating with Danish filmmaker Lea Glob. The directors met through a Danish initiative that pairs non-European filmmakers with European ones. Another hybrid of documentary and fiction, the film will follow a pregnant woman exploring how her sense of self changes as she prepares for motherhood. It will dig deep into the themes that Costa says she finds irresistible: womanhood, motherhood, identity and relationships.

For more information about the Brooklyn screening of Elena, visit

Latest IssueWinter 2023