Log #5

by Andrés D’Avenia

“Power is a central issue when making a documentary: we must be clear about the fact that it is the director who has the power. There is a power relationship in every documentary”. With this premise, with this conviction, the Brazilian filmmaker João Moreira Salles articulated the first part of his conference with the participants of the 12th Talents BA, which was moderated by Argentine critic Roger Koza.
His film previous film, Santiago (Brazil, 2007), was finished 20 years after it was shot. The director had filmed his family’s butler in 1992, but had to desist editing the film back then. His original intention was to make a documentary about Santiago. “It was only when I became aware that the film was not about him but about our relationship that I was able to edit the film and to finish it”. The documentary, then, became about a power relationship.
“What was fundamentally present in the footage was the fact that I was the employer’s son, and that it was an unequal relationship. It was not until I accepted and necessarily incorporated that issue and that aspect that the documentary was possible”, the filmmaker explained. “The film may have become about Santiago or about memory, but it is mainly a film about documentary filmmaking and about the relationship that is always established between that who is behind and that who is in front of the camera”.
Salles holds that even though the characters in a documentary film have something real, they are fictional, because documentarists always ultimately build them, when they shoot as well as when they edit. Considering this, it is essential to ask ourselves what we do and how we work with this power.
In the case of Brazil, this dilemma can be particularly felt since the tradition of Brazilian documentary is to make films from a specific social class (the middle or upper-middle class filmmakers belong to) which films another social class and world that is not theirs. “We work with the favela, with violence, in the Northeast… And even though we may have very good intentions, we end up working with an “other” which is different from ourselves: the poor, the violent people, the doentes, the miserable people. And to be unaware of this, to not think of it in terms of a power dynamics, is a huge problem” warned Salles.
“Even when I worked filming Lula in 2002, during the election campaign in which he was finally elected president, I was the one who had the power. I was the one who decided where to put the camera, how to film and when to shoot”, illustrated the filmmaker. According to him, documentarists are usually unaware of the power they have and the responsibility it entails. How to frame, how to edit, what is included and what is left out is always a decision. And the act of making that decision must be as conscious as the exercise of power over the character.
“This is what Santiago taught me and it is impossible for me to work now without considering this central aspect”. But it was also the time Salles spend, worked and shared with Eduardo Coutinho, “one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers”. “With him and with Santiago I learned that it is always necessary to think the documentary internally. The documentary is not simply about a subject or about a story that is told, but about how it is told. To incorporate the aspect of power, then, is essential”.
Joâo Moreira Salles presents his most recent work in the International Competition (outside the competition) of Bafici 2017: No intenso agora.