When Petra Costa, BC ’05, graduated from Barnard with a degree in anthropology, she never imagined that she would return to campus nine years later as an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
Her documentary film, “ELENA,” came out September 2012 in Brazil and has since won numerous accolades, including Best Directing and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Brasilia International Film Festival, as well as Best Feature Documentary at both the Havana Film Festival and France’s Films de Femmes. “ELENA” is screening on campus Friday and next Tuesday and will be released in the United States on May 30.
Born in Brazil, Costa came to college initially with plans to study theater, but became drawn to anthropology.
“It’s this joint thing between literature and sociology that really fascinated me,” Costa said. “And I saw then in documentary filmmaking a bridge between my interest in theater and my interest in anthropology, so that’s how I started getting into film.”
“ELENA,” is a film about loss and grief. It traces Costa’s search for the memory of her sister Elena, who came to New York to become an actress only to tragically commit suicide. Elena’s suicide had a lasting effect on the young Petra.
“New York became a bit of a taboo because of that,” she said. “The city had become an embodiment of a fear that I had.” However, she eventually convinced her mother to let her come to New York to study.
Although “ELENA” is categorized as a documentary, Costa conceives of the film as a project that blurs the line between fiction and reality. It incorporates old footage of her sister and blends it with new footage of Costa’s, including interviews with people who knew Elena.
But, the film goes beyond painting a simple portrait of the sisters’ experiences.
“For me it was never a film just about my sister or just about me, but about this moment of a young woman’s life,” she said. It’s also a film that addresses “how to assert yourself in a society, as an artist, as a human being.”
“How is it for someone to arrive in a city that they have no connections with. How do you deal with your ambitions? What happens when you don’t make it?” Costa asked.
Though “ELENA” centers on subject matter personal to Costa, because of these wider themes, the film is relatable to a large audience.
“It was beautiful to see how the film resonated with people from such different cultures . … There were a lot of people who said that they really identified with the subject matter and that it inspired them to create art,” Costa said.
The film’s reception in Brazil has been especially unprecedented in the country—documentaries tend to have an audience of 5,000 at most. “ELENA” drew an audience of 60,000 in 2013, making it the most watched documentary in Brazil that year.
“That really blew all our expectations,” she said.
Costa is currently working on a new project, which will be co-directed and co-produced by the avant-garde Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. The film is set to be finished in August.
ELENA will screen on April 4 and 8 at 6 p.m. in the James Room of Barnard Hall. The April 4 screening will be followed by a Q&A with film Professor Richard Peña and Costa. Professors Mary Gordon and Marie Regan will be on hand after the April 8 screening, along with Costa. Both events are free to the public.