Documentary filmmaking is fundamentally a cathartic exercise whereby the documentarian may present a persuasive argument for or against a cause. But a recent slew of deeply personal and self-reflective documentaries have entered the fray, with particular citation to Sarah Polley’s search for her paternal father in Stories We Tell and Joaquim Pinto’s AIDS-addled travelogue What Now Remind Me. These films touch upon deeply personal subjects that aren’t especially meant to broach universality - the emotions they speak of stem from deeply traumatic personal experiences that only the documentarian is truly attuned to. Petra Costa’s Elena is in a similar vein, where the director reconciles her emotions following the suicide of her older sister Elena.
Costa’s approach is reminiscent of Polley’s. She utilizes home video footage with contemporary material. These contemporary images include Petra and her mother wandering the streets of New York City as they discuss Elena and their vivid memories of her. Unlike Polley, Costa strips the film of a framework, instead deploying images from past and present organically. One image flows into another as if part of a constant stream of consciousness. From an editing perspective, Elena captures the sort of aura often associated with Terrence Malick’s more recent works like The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, wherein Costa effectively creates a wistful lyricism through her fluid movement. This is particularly the case as the film evolves into an increasingly abstract visual beast, where Costa deploys imagery of women floating in water, attempting to convey the dispirited sense of aimlessness that defined much of her adolescence.
But the great quandary that hindered both Stories We Tell and What Now Remind Me plagues Elena as well: the overarching sense that Costa’s efforts are too inherently personal. Stories We Tell remedied this issue to a degree by deconstructing the very nature of storytelling itself, outlining a thesis that served as the tidy bow to that picture’s intent. But Elena remains drenched in a self-reflective sorrow that it’s difficult to embrace its anguish as anything more than a bludgeoning of despair. Costa conveys the palpable loss of a sibling but there’s a distance between viewer and subject that is never addressed nor rectified. It achieves emotional impact but the essence of its design doesn’t provide a convincing sense of catharsis to the viewer; it’s something so intrinsically sad yet distant. Costa is skilled in capturing the spirit of her subject but can’t quite create that ever alluding effect of permanence.