João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part V

The Edit and Voice Over Choices  

In this film we didn’t try to disguise the sound cuts. There’s always continuous dialogue instead. And another thing we don’t have is editing… I mean, there is association but not an obvious one, like, for example, someone saying: “I went to Montevideo.” Then you cut it with someone else saying: “Montevideo is a very beautiful city.” You start hooking these themes, which is a classic way of making documentaries; things go hand in hand and evolve through very obvious connections. In this film that doesn’t happen, instead, the themes change dramatically without the need to indicate it, and all the sequences happen in a single shot so when they’re over it’s a clear indication for the audience that there’s been a cut, therefore the film also tells the story of its own edit.

‘When I started talking in the first person the film started to exist’

Noe Mendelle: In contrast with Santiago’s voice, you then took the decision of using someone else’s voice, not yours. How do you explain this?

There were ideas of sequence. I wanted to make a sequence about flowerpots, so we would find the flower pots and try to edit a sequence together. I would then write the text straight away. Ninety per cent of what can be heard in the film was written on the day it was edited, in the edit suite. I would write it and Eduardo Escorel had a shabby microphone, which he used to record it, and then we would adjust it. The text was written after the image, which I find very important. The image was preeminent. There wasn’t a text to start with and then we would come up with images to illustrate. It was the opposite. The text followed the image’s rhythm. At the end of the process, we had a film with Escorel’s voice, which is in fact very beautiful. So I watched the film like that for a few months. Then, Escorel and a small group of people who had seen the film insisted that I recorded it. Also, during the first week of editing, the text that I had written was in the third person, I didn’t use ‘I’. Again, it was going in the direction of the first failure. I was dissuaded to write in the first person by Lívia and Escorel, and when I started using the first person the film started to exist. It meant that I became a character in the film and my relationship with Santiago became the main relationship established in it.

‘It’s in the middle of that road that documentary exists. It tosses its roots into the real world and throws its hand into the world of fairy tales, into the imaginary.’

Among other things, the film is also about that tenuous and mysterious border between what had actually happened and what I thought had happened; between the house where I lived and the house in Santiago’s imagination. What it is in reality and what it is in the imaginary; a fairy tale of the truth, which I think is the nature of documentary. It doesn’t mean it’s a lie, but there’s an impure, and good mixture between the concrete and the imaginary. And it’s in the middle of that road that documentary exists. It tosses its roots into the real world and throws its hand into the world of fairy tales, into the imaginary. When I started watching the footage again, thirteen years later, very humbly and without any rhetorical feelings, a lot of the times I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t know if some of the scenes had been staged or if they had happened just like that without any external interference. I didn’t know if I had put that white cloth over Gávea’s house furniture. I didn’t know anymore. No one knew. Thirteen, fourteen years had gone past. So there was an element of doubt which for me was very important to include in the film… a doubt, an enigma that can’t be solved and that shouldn’t be solved. Is it the truth or is it not the truth? It’s not a ‘spot the differences’ game, ‘yes, it’s the truth!’ I don’t care… the important thing is to keep that fantasy territory alive, the one that doesn’t know what it is and will never find out.

In that sense, I thought that introducing someone else’s voice, not mine, speaking in my name, was to give the film another layer of illusion. A new layer saying: ‘Don’t believe in everything you see.’ And I could have use Escorel’s voice to do that, or an actor’s voice, which I did, there is a version narrated by an actor. And both Escorel and the actor introduced that layer of illusion, but in a blatant way. It was almost a militant proposal saying: ‘I am lying to you and I’m being blatant about it.’ But I find lying disinteresting. It’s not a question of lying or saying the truth; it’s a question of doubting, of ambiguity, of impurity. I love the idea of impurity but I don’t like the idea of purity which is closely associated with the idea of perfection. By speaking on my behalf, my brother Fernando in a way speaks about things that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk about, and he also talks about things that he could, because he lived in that house. He keeps a big part of those memories; they are his memories too. The things that he remembers are also things that he lived. It’s not a lying memory, it’s not a false memory; it’s not an artefact. He’s someone who incorporates my memories and has the right to have them. Not all of them, but most. So, it worked in that sense.

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.