João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part IV

Santiago and Memory

The film is very close to that sensation of celebrating nostalgia, which I think of as being the conservative idea that the past is better than the present, and that one needs to recover the past, which is impossible, so all that’s left is sadness and melancholy of the time that went past and the feeling you can’t invest in the present. From that you get the happiness of the past too. Nostalgia is necessarily melancholic and conservative. The past is better than the present and therefore, sometimes, better than the future… And I didn’t want to convey that in the film.

So I think the sound design would have had that connotation. I think beyond that, there’s also the need to say the following; past is irrecoverable and what you’re watching now, these images, are images that are missing an essential component, which is live sound. 
The shouting of those children, the affectionate word, the affection between my mother and my brother, my father playing with him… all of that is gone. If you put a soundtrack on it, the feeling that there’s something missing is lost. And this idea, that time produces a non-material effect is an idea that became very important at the time of filming. Why was that idea so important? Because it was Santiago’s idea. Santiago said: ‘The past passes. Things go past. Things are lost.’ What to do in face of that? Santiago found a way, through his lists and his imagination, by recovering that past by naming those people in the lists; by speaking about them and by speaking to them; by saying their names out loud it was as if they existed again, through memory.

It’s a Greek idea, because their biggest fear was to be forgotten. The hero went to the battle and it was important there was a poet to sing about his bravery in the battlefield, because he would always be alive in the poet’s song. The curse is to be forgotten. That’s why the river that flows in Greek mythology is the river of oblivion, when you die. Santiago had that idea very much alive in him. To remember, sing, name, and say these names to keep them alive.

But there are things that go missing. And in the case of this film, things went missing. We, Video Filmes, my production company, used to be in a part of Rio de Janeiro when I made the film. Thirteen years later we had moved somewhere else in Rio and, during the moving, some things went missing, among them some of ‘Santiago’s’ audio tracks. At the end of the movie, you can see scenes of Santiago talking with no sound, and no music either. Again, it was an attempt to show that this was the subject; time. Time loses things. And whatever Santiago said in that moment, I will never know, because it’s lost. And that is included in the film.

When we started editing again, myself, Escorel and Lívia made the decision to include all those very concrete accidents in the film. If we have sound but the image is lost, let’s use the sound and not the image. Leave it all black. If there’s image but the sound is lost, let’s use the image without the sound, because the history of the footage is in those mistakes, in what the footage has left behind, because it got lost in time and because time went past. So in that scene you can’t hear the noises of the house; the sonority of that house doesn’t exist. Any attempt to create sound for it, would be, in fact, violent in relation to what I was trying to say with this film.

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.