Oscar-nominated Petra Costa delivered a highly entertaining and provocative masterclass at VdR during which she discussed her feature films and motivations, specifically the ‘black hole’ of personal trauma.
“I think all my films are somehow about trauma, trauma as a vortex, a black hole, a scar that erases all the meaning around the traumatic event, that makes you unable to signify it, and then all you can do is repeat it,” commented Costa, when asked about her feature debut Elena, the tragic story of Petra’s older sister, who left Brazil for New York.
“For many years I felt that (trauma) in relation to what had happened to Elena. I didn’t feel [it] when I made the film… but it was still the richest experience I had gone through in my lifetime, because traumas are that. [Like] a black hole, they concentrate the energy of all that is around them.” A trauma must be approached tentatively at its sides, she says, “otherwise you are sucked in by it, it has so much strength, so much creative potential that it starts speaking by itself… It [has] the blackhole potential from which a lot of meaning springs up.”
Costa explained why she decided on a life in film over academia. “One thing that I found frustrating in academia – I went on to do a masters degree in social psychological and applied, and got into, a doctorate in magical anthropology – was the idea that I would always have to be making theses out of the experiences I investigated… To live an entire experience and investigate a subject matter deeply, and to then extract a thesis was really reductive.”
“In theatre and in dance and cinema I felt I could express more of what I extracted from experience,” she said, before quoting Pina Bausch, “’I’m not interested in how people move but what moves people.’ And I felt I could get closer to what moves people in expressing that artistically, rather than academically.”
And on her decision to turn to the life of her sister as a subject for her debut feature documentary?
“I had an ambition in the theatre group I was working with of creating a scene about the ‘book of life’, and I started thinking…should I go to the bible, the Karan, Das Kapital?” she asks. “[Instead] I decided to go to my diaries, and in the midst of them I found a diary of Elena that I had never seen, and it was a very uncanny experience because we had similar handwriting, the experiences were the same, the anxieties were the same, the fears and the parents were the same, so it was really like finding a writing that I had not done, but was mine.”
“When I read Freud’s essay on the uncanny, it was very much what I felt at that moment,” she adds. “What I had been feeling for a while and kept feeling until I grew older than Elena, was the feeling that I would follow her footsteps. She was my double and I had no control over my own destiny.”
In her 2015 Olmo and the Seagull, co-directed with Danish director Lea Glob, Costa tells the story of a couple, Olivia and Serge, two actors whose lives (especially that of Olivia) are shunted onto a parallel track when they discover that she is pregnant. It is a glorious film in which the lines between what is real and what is staged/manufactured are regularly blurred/expunged, and in which the demands/suggestions of the director(s) are, in a Bazinian sense, rendered both obvious and tangible.
“I was very interested in a couple representing their own life and what are the limits to that… [actors] who have in their lives the questions of when they are acting and when does the acting stop,” she said of a scene in which Serge comes home after work to an Olivia who is now at the end of her tether following another day cooped up in their apartment, a scene reminiscent of our current lockdown dilemma.
“In this discussion [within the scene] it was interesting because we were exploring the claustrophobia, quarantining moment of Olivia when she was like us all today, locked inside her house for months on end, a hostage of her own baby, and in a situation of invisibility,” says Costa. “Her work was invisible work, the work of creating a human being. While Serge was the man paying bills and flirting around, [the film is] exploring a side of pregnancy that is very seldomly explored, how pregnancy creates all the misconceptions of the conceptional. And how to do that – mixing fiction and reality – exploring the boundaries and also provoking the couple to go the places where they would not necessarily want to go.”
She pointed out how, for this film, directors John Cassavetes and Peter Brook were true inspirations, as was Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
“I think Rosemary’s Baby is the only film I have seen…that explores the complexity of pregnancy, of how a woman loses control over her own body when she becomes pregnant. It becomes the body of society, to the extent where abortion is still forbidden, so a woman can go to jail if she does something to her own body. So you really lose control, and Rosemary’s Baby really shows that in the most diabolical way.”
Costa was asked about the business of bearing one’s soul in documentary. “I think when you approach the personal, looking at what is most uncomfortable about it, what is most shameful, traumatic, painful, what you least want to share with others is what is most interesting…is where most of the potential is, where most of the energy is concentrated. And also the question intimacy, more than actually going to what is taboo is going deep, going deep as one can.”
She then spoke about her Edge of Democracy, ostensibly a film about the very recent political machinations within her home country, centring on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the roots of the Brazilian dilemma and the production difficulties thrown up by a constantly shifting political landscape.
“Brazil is a country made by coups. We had many coups, no revolutions,” she said. “And every rebellion was brutally crushed. It’s a bit like [di Lampedusa’s novel] The Leopard – ‘let’s change things so everything can stay the same,’… The elite is constantly advancing itself in doing coups before revolutions can ever take place, and that’s the case since independence until the coup in 1964, and more recently the impeachment of Dilma.”
“We live the constant curse of being a colony, and when we start to overcome our colonial situation the coups come to reinforce us to go back to our subjugation,” she continued. “This film was quite unique because we thought at first it would only be about the impeachment [of Dilma]… so we filmed that year intensely and we filmed the entire impeachment trial.”
“That was the most time-consuming because [there were] hours and hours of hearings and testimonials and accusations and defence… and as soon we started to take control and make sense of what had happened, a new event would happen and Telmer [subsequent president] of Brazil would almost be impeached, so we’d have to go back to Brasilia…and film more and make sense of that again, and then another event would happen, and then Lula [president 2003-11] was imprisoned, and then as soon as we felt ‘ok, we have more or less a film here’…then Bolsonaro [current president] was elected. So reality was constantly challenging the film to reimagine itself.”
“Will there be an Edge of Democracy 2?” asked an online viewer? “It’s a question that is haunting me,” Costa replied. “I don’t have an answer yet. But we are doing a project called ‘Dystopi’a where we are collecting people’s narratives and own perspectives of their quarantine from the pandemic across the world, and I would like to invite anyone who wants to share their images with us, we will pay for the images that we use in the film and we would love to compose this mosaic [from] as many points of view as possible.”
Towards the end, Costa discussed her role as producer on Barbara Paz’s Tell Me When I Die (which won Best Doc at Venice 2019), about the battle against cancer waged by the director’s husband, renowned director Hector Babenco, and Moara Passoni’s exquisite essay on anorexia, Ecstasy.
“Our relationship [with Paz on Tell Me When I Die] was more of a provocation, where she would come to me…insecure of how much she should put her point of view,” she said. “I think there was a pressure for her to do an objective portrayal of this master of cinema, and I was more like provoking and helping her to dare to film her dreams and her nightmares, and she did that wonderfully,” says Costa.
I told her to watch The Beaches of Agnès by Agnès Varda, which is a film that is great for anyone who is feeling locked or uninspired, because Agnès [in that film] manages and dares to do everything that comes into her mind. That film inspired Barbara, and she manged to make a beautiful poem of love and death.”
On Ecstasy: “It’s a beautiful film that Moara, who has been a very great companion for the past years and who has worked with me on all my films, did about her own experience battling with anorexia for many years, and it was more of a collaboration where I would help her sometimes write, sometimes I would film with her,” says Costa.
“It is a film that manages to give a very different rendering of what one usually thinks of anorexia, and puts you in the perspective of the anorexic… not necessarily wanting to be pretty or to satisfy a desire of the other, but in a competition with her own self and as a form of pleasure and control.”