The best way I found to describe Elena, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa’s first feature film, is a shared therapy session. So often in media we find failed attempts to talk about depression and suicide by missing the point in both directions (of either being too simple or too dramatic), but Costa’s picture feels raw and real.
Elena is a documentary that deals with the suicide of the director’s sister Elena, who is seven years older and has a very deep bond with her younger sibling. When Elena starts university, she moves from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to New York City to study drama and become a film actress. But she has depression and her episodes get really bad to the point that the whole family moves to New York to be with Elena.
Elena left behind not only a suicide letter but also more than 50 hours of footage and a voice diary, which she kept because she didn’t like her own handwriting. So Costa has very rich and deeply personal materials to use. She also takes their mother back to NYC, and, together, they retrace all their steps through their lives up until the suicide. The movie finishes with a very lucid sequence of girls drowned in a river and being taken by the current: the depression being represented by Shakespeare’s Ophelia.
The documentary’s openness and high level of emotional exposure have been criticized by many who argue that Costa has no right to expose her sister like that. All the documents mentioned above were created by Elena for her and her family, not for the whole world to see it. This is why I referred to it as a shared therapy session: we, as an audience, feel we have no right to be there because everything is so intimate. It feels like we’re eavesdropping. But at the same time, the movie is not about Elena; it’s about Petra’s grief over her sister’s death and her refusal to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Before becoming a movie director, Petra moved to New York to study drama, too.
Elena is available to stream on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube. Follow Elena on Facebook, YouTube and the film’s website, and follow Petra Costa on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. and her website.