‘The strength of any director lies within his roots’
Walter Salles began his career as a Brazilian filmmaker, but after directing «The Motorcycle Diaries» he came to consider himself Latin American. Following the recorded footsteps of Ernesto «Che» Guevara around Latin America made him feel, he says, as though his «home got bigger.» The award-winning 2004 road movie, which illustrates how a journey can cultivate characters, ideologies and consciousness, drew around 12 million people worldwide. The effects of history on the individual is a subject that has interested Salles, even in his earliest films, «Foreign Land» (1996) and «Central do Brasil» (1998). Salles is among a handful of Brazilian directors who are responsible for the rebirth of the country’s booming cinema industry and as such was invited to the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which runs until Sunday, to deliver a master class, along with Wim Wenders, on road movies. The festival has also organized a tribute to Brazilian cinema (which will begin in Athens on November 30), covering 50 years of production with 18 films. Director Carlos Diegues has said that Brazilian cinema is the country itself. Do you agree with this point of view? I agree with Diegues because a country without cinema is like a house without mirrors. An example: When Brazilian cinema disappeared between 1989 and 1994 for political reasons, it was as if we had been forbidden from looking at our own reflections. A national cinema output is, above all else, a projection of the national identity. If you look at recent Brazilian films you will get a good sense of who we are, where we come from and, maybe, where we are going. «With a camera in hand and an idea in the head.» How much has this motto of Cinema Novo influenced you? I am influenced, indeed. It is perhaps most noticeable in «Foreign Land,» a film that pays tribute to various film forms: neorealism, Cinema Novo, French Nouvelle Vague, film noir. This film was shot after the 1989-1994 period during which Brazilian cinema was silent, so my associates and I decided to combine all the cinematic forms we loved. Cinema Novo is modeled on Italian neorealism. By moving the camera outside the studio and close to the faces of people in the street, they didn’t just create an aesthetic, but a moral revolution as well. We are all the children of this tradition in one way or another. How hard was it for you to work in a different language, as you did for «Dark Water»? The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa said, «My language is my country.» And yes, it is hard to abandon it. That’s why if you take a journey to a foreign land, you must never forget your passport. You must be able to return to the source. The strength of any director lies within his roots. Saying that, of course, Billy Wilder may have some strong objections. How do you explain the rising popularity of documentaries and would you say your films have a documentary feel about them? I come from documentary films and I return to them as much as I can in my fiction films. Documentaries are like a serum. After recomposing reality in fiction, it is very refreshing to dive back into reality and rediscover the real ingredients of life. Documentary film also gives you an enormous breadth of expression, the possibility to experiment. A nine-hour documentary by Chinese director Wang Bing, «West of the Track,» is the best thing I have seen in the last five years. How did the experience of «The Motorcycle Diaries,» where you followed the tracks of Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, change you? It didn’t just change me, but everyone who participated in the film. Filming «The Motorcycle Diaries» was like participating in a rite of transition. We experienced most of the stories and adventures you see on screen. We improvised, mixed professional with amateur actors. At one point we thought we would never reach the end. If we did it’s because we believe very strongly in the collective effort of cinema and loved the story we were telling. How do you judge the president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva? I have voted for Lula many times in the past. And like many other Brazilians who dream of a country that is more just and truly independent, I believe Lula could have done a better job. The least we can say is that some of his closest associates did not help him. Personally I feel that he can make up for it. After receiving a million votes, it is up to him to decide how he will face history. Do you sense a turn to the Left in Latin America? If so, would you describe it as an awakening against the domination of the USA? It is clearly a reaction to globalization, which has had a disastrous effect on many countries in South America over the past 10 years. The fall of the Berlin Wall proved that one of the systems that governed the world was inviable. Of course, the one that remains, without a counterbalance, has also proven inviable. It is inviable in its basic impotence to distribute wealth, to create jobs, to envision a future that means something to the majority. The Left in Latin America will be in a position to survive only if it reinvents itself, if it creates a model that is plausible, environmentally conscious and capable of committing the people to the political process without trying to appeal to populist sentiment.