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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part VI

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.*


To view an extract of the film please click here.


This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.


*Unknown author.

The reasons behind ‘Santiago’

In this film, there’s something from which you can’t run away, which is… It sounds like by talking about it, I’m defending myself from my tyranny, a cleverly narcissistic procedure almost…  And because I’m talking about it, it’s as if everything is fine. I admit, therefore it’s as if I’m very brave. But it’s not like that, it’s not something that I’m proud of… even when I look at it today I feel embarrassed for having done something I didn’t quite realise I was doing, but I still did it. It doesn’t save me from anything; the film was made under those conditions. So by re-editing the film, not to show that I’m brave or to show what I did wrong – there is no bravery in showing what I did wrong when what I did condemned the relationship I had with Santiago. Now, that was the footage and that was the relationship, so if the film has to be made and if the first film failed because it didn’t show what actually happened, I only had two choices. I could either show what happened and expose myself to the critics of ‘He’s such a good guy for showing this, he’s redeemed himself, this film is a redemption, he saw the light, he’s almost a saint’.

No, that’s not why, but it’s the only way the film can exist, because the other way is to not have the film. And if there’s no film, there’s no way of revealing what was the actual process of filming and the nature of my relationship with Santiago. So I think this sequence clearly shows what I had with him, a relationship of power, although I insist it wasn’t just that. I believe there was affection, there was love, and that showed even if through a class structure, even though I wasn’t aware of it. So inside that class structure, therefore of inequality, there was love and it manifested itself that way.

I defend that it was better to have it made than not, at least from Santiago’s point of view, because we’re here today, some fifteen years after his death, talking about him. And he is, ultimately, an extraordinary and lively character. He would have disappeared without a trace if it weren’t for this film and I think that, somehow, redeems the film; it’s a counterpoint to the violence of the film. The fact that there was someone who went there to listen to him, even though I listened in a very specific way, and some of it I didn’t listen to but some I did. In that sense I’d like to think that the film does with Santiago what Santiago did with his old characters from his lists. He named them out loud and they became real. I made a film about Santiago and he became real too.

Click on the links to read part Ipart IIpart III,  part IV or part V.


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