Walter Salles received the San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF53). The Founder's Directing Award is presented each year to a master of world cinema and is given in memory of Irving M. Levin, founder of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The award was first bestowed in 1986 on iconic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and for many years carried his name. Highly recommended is Margarita Landazurri's tribute essay "Dreaming Identity" for the SFIFF53 catalogue, which provides an insightful overview of the filmmaker's creative shift from documentary work and its influence on his subsequent feature films. She likewise profiles his tireless promotion of Brazilian master works alongside the visions of younger South American filmmakers, many of whose films he has helped produce. Further, Landazurri finesses: "In dreaming and exploring his own cultural identity as a Brazilian, a Latin American and a citizen of the world, Salles has contributed his unique perspective and in so doing significantly enriched international cinema."
To celebrate the honor, SFIFF53 organized three separate programs with Salles in attendance at each. The first was an onstage tribute at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, which included a clip reel of career highlights, an onstage interview with Alejandro González Iñárritu, and a special screening of In Search of On the Road (a Work in Progress), an hour-long edit prepared specifically for the Festival of a documentary about Salles's effort to make a documentary about Jack Kerouac, his seminal novel On the Road, and the Beat Generation; the second was a Masters Class in which Salles spoke to young filmmakers; and the third was a screening of Linha de Passe, introduced by Salles before rushing off to accept his award at the benefit awards ceremony. I hope to write about all three events more fully when time warrants, but until then, I offer two brief exchanges with this year's strikingly articulate Walter Salles.
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Michael Guillén: You've spoken of the movement within the visual language of your films, and you've touched upon the intriguing concept of the immersive quality of 3D technology as applied to films; but, I'd like to say that I find the 2D quality of your films to be quite immersive, quite sensual. I was wondering if you could speak to the tactile language of your films? And how it is that you structure your films such that your audiences experientially feel them?
Walter Salles: It's something that is hard to define—the word is not very good—but, even in a Cartesian manner. You achieve that quality when you are on the set and you forget that you are doing a film. Everybody forgets that they're doing a film. What blossoms is something that pertains to that movement, to that moment, and has an integrity of the moment. I don't know if I'm being clear about this; but, every time that you scheme everything that is the veils of acting and pretending, you're approaching something that is quite unique and sensorial. This is why I hate to have a "making of" [camera crew] in a shoot because you're constantly reminded that you are in a shoot, you see? I think that to film is to actually forget that you're doing a film. This is when the ballet of it starts, y'know? When the jazz of it starts. You can actually communicate with the DP just by looking at him and sensing where one should go. The actor feels that. It's something that cannot be expressed by words, but has to do with—I would say—the temperature that you create on the set and the way that you reach that.
So to give you an example: in the case of The Motorcycle Diaries, we arrived in Argentina where the production started and a long time before the shoot. And we collectively did—the word is a little bit grand, but—seminars. A lot of young professors from the University came to talk about the music of the period, about heroism, and about Inca history. At the beginning, Carlos Conti (the production designer) and a group of six or seven people came to listen to that, and at the end the whole crew came. We projected films from the fifties. We brought the period closer to us and we somehow decanted it.
Picasso used to say, "Painting as you should is at the time when you forget painting, as when you were a five-year-old." The process is really about knowing all the possibilities, then forgetting about what you've learned and being inventive on the moment. On the moment, you have to forget that you're doing a film. This is how it acquires a sensorial quality.
Guillén: I'm impressed with your quotesmanship, your knowledge of other filmmakers, and especially your knowledge of other art practices. I'm interested if you can address the value of acknowledging a sibling relationship with the other arts and the value such acknowledgment lends to filmmaking?
Salles: We are part of a generation that was mostly informed about the world through films; but, also through literature, through music. This morning I was writing, for instance, [an acceptance speech for tonight's award ceremony] and it wasn't working. I was feeling too much jet lag and I was thinking, "How can I solve this?" Neil Young helped me. The interconnection between different forms of narration, of art, is something irrefutable. It is what it is.
I tend to believe that you don't need to go to film school to become a filmmaker. I actually didn't go to film school. At one point I studied philosophy, history, economics, it just happened like this and for one reason: there was no film school in Brazil—in Rio at least—at that point. I couldn't study film, you see? So I had to drift a little to find a way to get there; but, above all, the film drifts out of curiosity. Because at the end of the day, it's about storytelling. Storytelling is in the streets, it's in the books that we read, it's in the music that we hear and all of these echoes. There's a general echo that comes from that interest.
Cross-published on Twitch.