Petra Costa

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Petra Costa
Born (1983-07-08) 8 July 1983 (age 40)
EducationUniversity of São Paulo
Barnard College
London School of Economics
Occupation(s)Actress, filmmaker
Years active2005–present
Notable workThe Edge of Democracy, Elena, Undertow Eyes, Olmo and the Seagull

Petra Costa (born 8 July 1983) is a Brazilian filmmaker and actress. She has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 2018. Her first documentary feature, Elena (2012), won major awards.


Her first short film, Undertow Eyes (2009), portrays her grandparents' recollections and stories in a personal and existential tale about love and death. It was screened at MoMA in 2010 and won Best Short Film at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival 2009, the London International Documentary Festival, and at the 13th Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, among others[citation needed].

Her first documentary feature, Elena (2012), was the most watched documentary in Brazil in 2013[citation needed]. It tells the story of two sisters – and as one searches for the other, their identities begin to blur. The film was called "a cinematic dream" by the New York Times,[1] "haunting and unforgettable" by the Hollywood Reporter,[2] and a "masterful debut that takes nonfiction where it seldom wants to go – away from the comforting embrace of fact and into a realm of expressionistic possibility" by Indiewire.[3] Elena premiered at IDFA followed by SXSW and Hotdocs. It won Best Film at the 2013 Havana Film Festival, Best Film at DOCSDF, Best Directing, Best Editing, and Best Film for the popular jury at the Brasília Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2014 Cinema Eye Honors[citation needed].


Petra Costa was born in 1983 in Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. She is the daughter of left-wing political activists who opposed the Brazilian military dictatorship and the granddaughter of Gabriel Donato de Andrade, one of the co-founders of Andrade Gutierrez, one of the country's major construction companies;[4] directly involved in the corruption and bribery scandal that hit the country in 2015, leading to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Costa acknowledges that background in The Edge of Democracy.

She started her training in theater in Brazil at the age of 14 and later went to the Dramatic Arts School at the University of São Paulo. She completed her undergraduate studies summa cum laude in Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, and completed her master's degree in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics focusing her studies on the concept of trauma.

Back in Brazil, at the age of 24, she began devoting her time to the cinema, first as a researcher and assistant editor and director, and then as a director in her own right. Her works are known for their essayistic character, with Petra establishing dialogues between intimate, personal themes and social and political issues.

Her cinematic influences include Gillo Pontecorvo, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, and Patricio Guzmán.


Petra Costa made her film debut producing and directing the short film Undertow Eyes (2009), a poetic depiction of love and aging as seen from the perspective of her grandparents. The film was screened at MoMA and scooped numerous awards at Brazilian and international festivals: best short film at the Rio Festival and London International Documentary Festival (LIDF), best short documentary at the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival (USA) and special jury's prize at the Gramado Film Festival, among others.

Her first feature film, Elena (2012) — in which Petra revisits New York two decades after leaving it in order to seek out the memory of her dead sister, Elena — was presented at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), São Paulo International Film Festival, Brasilia National Film Festival, and the Director's Week (Rio de Janeiro).[5][6][7] The film won dozens of awards, including best documentary at the Festival of Havana, and was the most widely viewed documentary in Brazil in 2013.

As an offshoot of the documentary's success, a series of debates toured cultural and educational centers discussing the issues of suicide and mental health. The Memórias Inconsoláveis (Inconsolable Memories) competition was part of this drive.

In 2014, Elena was released in the United States with filmmakers Fernando Meirelles and Tim Robbins as executive producers. That year, the documentary came third in the ranking for average viewership per theater throughout the US and was met with critical acclaim. The New York Times described it as "a filmic dream",[1] while the Hollywood Reporter called it "shocking and unforgettable".[2]  Indiewire claimed it was a "masterful debut [that] takes nonfiction where it seldom wants to go – away from the comforting embrace of fact and into a realm of expressionistic possibility".[3] Indiewire listed it among the best documentaries of the year.[8]

In 2014, the publisher Arquipélago launched the book Elena de Petra Costa (Petra Costa's Elena), with essays on the film, the full script and bonus content seen for the first time.

Petra Costa's second feature documentary emerged from an invitation from the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH: DOX) to co-direct a film with Danish filmmaker Lea Glob. Together, they decided to explore real lives through the fictional structure of Olmo and the Seagull. The film follows Olivia and Serge, actors with the Théâtre du Soleil, who are expecting a baby. Pregnancy turns into a rite of passage, forcing the actress to confront her darkest fears. Olivia's desire for freedom and professional success, the limits imposed by her own body, and her image as a person are just some of the themes the film explores.[9]

Olmo and the Seagull premiered in Locarno, where it won the Jury's Young Director's Prize. It also won the Best Nordic Dox Award at CPH:DOX, best documentary at the Rio Film Festival, best documentary at the Cairo Film Festival and Best Narrative at the RiverRun International Film Festival, among other accolades.

At one of the film's first screenings in Brazil, Petra Costa defended women's right to autonomy over their bodies and the decriminalization of abortion, and her comments stirred up quite a controversy. In order to dialogue with the criticism she received, Petra created the "My Body, My Rules" social media campaign, which was seen by 13 million viewers on Facebook and YouTube.

She made the feature-length documentary The Edge of Democracy (2019) with coverage of the marches for and against the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The film is a Netflix production and was released worldwide on June 19, 2019. With ample access to presidents Lula, Dilma and Bolsonaro, the director also revisited her own family history in an attempt to understand the schismatic state her country had fallen into.

The Edge of Democracy premiered on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival 2019 and was selected for screening at various other international festivals, including CPH:DOX, True False, IndieLisboa, Sheffield and Rooftop Films. The film was a critical success. "An absolutely vital documentary", according to the New York Post, "a vast and petrifying documentary" for Variety,[10] while ScreenDaily described it as a "political thriller […] with the feel of an All the Presidents Men […] and the sweep of the Godfather".[11] For NBC News, the film throws the doors open on "incredible behind the scenes access to politics".[12] "The images are jaw-dropping", said the site,[13] while Point of View labelled it "[a documentary] like no other, a work both intimate and grand in scope".[14]

Petra Costa ranked among Variety's 10 documentary filmmakers to watch in 2019.


  • 2005 – Dom Quixote de Bethelehem (Feature film, video documentary)[15]
  • 2009 – Undertow Eyes (Short film, documentary)
Rio Film Festival: Best Short Film[16]
Gramado Film Festival (Brazil) Special Jury Award and Audience Award[16]
São Paulo International Short Film Festival: New Talents Award[16]
  • 2012 – Elena (Feature film)
Brasília National Film Festival: Best Documentary – Audience Award, Best Directing, Editing and Production Design[17]
Selected for IDFA (Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival) and Guadalajara International Film Festival[5]
  • 2015 – Olmo and the Seagull (Feature film, documentary)[18]
Rio Film Festival: Best Documentary[19]
Sundance Official Selection, CPH:Dox, True False.


Year Award Category Nominated work Role
2009 Rio Film Festival Best Short Film Undertow Eyes[16] Director, Producer, Writer
Gramado Film Festival Special Jury Award
Audience Award
Vitoria Cine Video Best Editing
Itu International Film Festival Best Screenplay
Goiania Short Film Festival Best Film
São Paulo International Short Film Festival New Talents Award
2010 Cine Las Americas International Film Festival Best Short Documentary Film
Curta Cabo Frio Best Short Documentary in 35mm
New England Festival of Ibero American Cinema Best Short Film
2011 London International Documentary Festival Best Short Film
2012 Brasília National Film Festival: Best Documentary Audience Award Elena[20] Director, Producer, Writer
Best Directing
Production Design
2013 Guadalajara Film Festival (Mexico)[21] Special Mention
ZagrebDox Documentary Film Festival (Croatia)[22] Special Mention
Films de Femmes (France) Best Documentary Feature
Planete + Doc Film Festival (Poland) CANON Cinematography Award for best Cinematography
Cine Música – Festival de Cinema de Conservatória (Brazil) Best Original Music
Havana Film Festival (Cuba) Best Documentary Feature
Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival (EUA) Best Documentary Feature
2014 CPH:DOX Best Nordic Dox Award Olmo and the Seagull Director, Producer, Writer
2015 Cairo International Film Festival Special Mention
Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival Best Documentary
Vienale Best Documentary
Locarno International Film Festival Junior Jury Award
2016 Cinema Brazil Grand Prize Best Foreign-Language Film
Millennium Docs Against Gravity Fiction Non Fiction Award
RiverRun International Film Festival Audience Choice Award


  1. ^ a b Holden, Stephen (29 May 2014). "Searching for Her Sister, as Well as for Herself". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  2. ^ a b "'Elena': Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. 29 May 2014. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  3. ^ a b Anderson, John (29 May 2014). "Review: A Dreamy Suicide is a Masterful Debut in Petra Costa's 'Elena'". IndieWire. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  4. ^ "Quem é Petra Costa, diretora de 'Democracia em vertigem', documentário indicado ao Oscar". O Globo (in Brazilian Portuguese). 14 January 2020. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Spotlight: Elena | IDFA 2013". Archived from the original on 23 February 2013. Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  6. ^ "43ª Mostra Internacional de Cinema".
  7. ^ "46º Festival de Brasília do Cinema Brasileiro - Página Inicial". Archived from the original on 2 November 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  8. ^ "The Best Movies Of 2013 (The Playlist Staff Top 10s)". IndieWire. 31 December 2013. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  9. ^ "Olmo and The Seagull". Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  10. ^ Lodge, Guy (25 April 2019). "Film Review: 'The Edge of Democracy'". Variety. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  11. ^ Hunter, Allan (29 March 2019). "'The Edge Of Democracy': CPH:DOX review". Screen. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  12. ^ "Here are 5 Latino-themed films to watch at Sundance". NBC News. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  13. ^ "Sundance 2019: Petra Costa's Documentary 'The Edge of Democracy'". Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  14. ^ "Review: 'The Edge of Democracy'". Point of View. 29 April 2019. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  15. ^ [user-generated source]
  16. ^ a b c d "".
  17. ^ "ELENA".
  18. ^ "Locarno: 'Jack,' 'Heimatland,' 'Olmo' in Fest Run-up Sales News". Variety. 20 July 2015. Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  19. ^ "Coprodução luso-brasileira Olmo e a gaivota distinguida no Festival do Rio 2015". Retrieved 27 November 2015.
  20. ^ "ELENA". Archived from the original on 4 April 2014. Retrieved 8 May 2013.
  21. ^ "Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara - Palmarés FICG28". Archived from the original on 9 October 2013. Retrieved 9 May 2013..Festival Internacional de Guadalajara
  22. ^ "Home / 2022 / ZAGREBDOX International documentary film festival".

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