João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part III

Santiago’s freedom and the concept behind the film

This excerpt follows Noe Mendelle’s remark on this scene. She asked João if he thinks this was the only moment of the film where Santiago exercised his freedom.

Santiago told me once: ‘I find my hands very beautiful and I remember making these gestures as a child, like an exercise, whilst listening to Bach.’

And he asked me to do that in the film. So you’re right when you say that maybe that is one of the only moments in the film in which he’s exercising his freedom. To be able to do what he wanted to and be proud of it to the point he wanted it to be filmed. And he’s absolutely free and happy doing it, because it’s important for him and it’s beautiful.

When it came to editing, I had a discussion with Eduardo Escorel and with another editor, Lívia. There was three generations in the edit suite. Lívia was 22, 23 years old, I was 40 something and Escorel was 60 something. And as I mentioned yesterday, this film was edited without any expectations. Not only expectations about the audience, which didn’t even cross my mind, but any expectations that this was going to be a film.  It was something made for me, so everything was allowed. We didn’t worry about it being too long or too short, if it’s beautiful and we want to look at it, let’s leave it, because no one is going to judge it.  It’s not a rhetoric film and, I know a lot of people say they made a personal project but this was specifically and truly a very personal project. And no one remembered it existed and there was no pretension to transform it into a film.

So everything was allowed. There was no kind of thoughts asking ‘What about the audience?’

So that specific scene was left long, and Escorel said: ‘But that’s too long!’ and I said: ‘That is a little too long.’ And Lívia, who was the most orthodox and the bravest, said: ‘It’s too short! Leave it for longer!’ She ended up being the radical element in our edit. And it stayed that long because it’s the time he takes… it’s all there is in the film, there’s no more than that. And it lasted for as long as he wanted to show us his hands. So what he had to show us is all in the film, in its entirety, just like a present he gave us. There is no other interpretation beyond that, but I think that you’re right, it is a moment of absolute freedom in which Santiago is not being directed, in fact, the camera is only observing what he chose to show us. And all of it was his choice, including the frame. He said: ‘I don’t want my face in it; I only want my hands, like two ballerinas.’ So we closed in and got a black backdrop in front of him, and he would pass his hands in front of it and do it… There isn’t a place for it either. There’s no geographical place, it breaks from the prison of the apartment, it breaks free from the rigidness of the frame. It breaks from…

Noe Mendelle: Even the hands get out of frame.

João Salles: And the hands break free from the frame too. And they come back when he and Bach’s music decide to give the hands back to the frame. So, you’re right, I’d never thought about it like that but it’s a moment in which Santiago exercises his freedom, right in front of the tyranny of filmmaking.

Noe Mendelle: But you decided to shoot it statically. The frame doesn’t go looking for the hands, it stays put.

João Salles: It stays put.

Noe Mendelle: And you have, there is some sort of respect for these hands that move out of frame.

João Salles: Yes, there is respect in a general sense.

Noe Mendelle: Did you get more than one take?

João Salles: No, no. Everything in that scene, everything you see it’s all that was filmed. There’s no before or after. If I had more I have the feeling that Lívia would have convinced us to put it in. Now, the rigidness of the shot is something that is present in the whole film. I mean, it was a very pretentious film. The original idea was very pretentious. And what was the original idea? Santiago represents to me memory. That is, a sort of vertical axis, fixed on the ground, without moving, except in my imagination. The house, that I filmed empty, was a house that, at that time, for me, only symbolized a place. It didn’t symbolize history anymore, because history had abandoned that house. My family had left it and somehow it lost all its purpose, because times were changing. It was impossible to have such a big house so close to the millennium. This was a house built at the start of the 50’s, when Rio de Janeiro was another city. It was too big a house, too pompous for the ‘90’s. The house was built when Rio de Janeiro was still Brazil’s capital. My dad had been the State Minister and he was Joselino’s colleague. So this house was a centre for Rio de Janeiro’s political life.

Now, at the time of filming, Rio de Janeiro wasn’t the capital anymore; it had been taken over by violence. It lost its consciousness, it didn’t know what it was anymore, and it didn’t reinvent itself… so the city lost its centrality. Brasilia was now the capital; São Paulo was the financial capital. Rio de Janeiro was a memory of something that didn’t exist anymore. And that house represented all of that, for me, a drifting place, without history’s courage, as if it had been ditched by history and it was adrift in the sea. Therefore, because it was pure geography without history’s anchor, the scenes in the house are all moving, just like anything that doesn’t have an anchor.

Santiago is pure memory, not geography anymore, because Rio was not important to me then, the city didn’t matter anymore, what mattered was the verticality of memory and time. So, everything that happened in Santiago’s house was filmed statically. And all the movement in it is the movement of imagination. In the house, all empty, everything is moving because the imagination has left, it was over. Its purpose is over, its history was over, and the idea was over too, the idea that ended on the cutting room floor… because it was pretentious. That was the idea; that empty place was to be filled by Santiago’s memories. I didn’t have to go anywhere to travel in time. The house was sliding but it couldn’t find rest in reason, or a place where it could feel at ease, anchored or stopped. So that was the big opposition of the film. It’s static when you’re watching Santiago, in constant movement when you’re inside the house.

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.

In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

"Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking." (Source unknown)

Here is an extract of the film.

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.