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  • Joanne Tong

Cannes Diaries: Walter Salles

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

Walter Salles rendered me more starstruck than did Martin Scorsese.

I’d seen Mr. Scorsese speak three days before, at the launch of his World Cinema Foundation in the Salle Buñuel auditorium. His fund was devoted to restoring and preserving endangered films from around the world. (Not-so-fun fact: Only 5% of all silent films are still in acceptable condition!) I thought that the experience would be the highlight of my Cannes trip, but Mr. Salles proved me wrong.

The Brazilian director was at the festival to act as a patron for Europe Day, an event where members of the EU film and political communities gathered to discuss issues currently facing the film industry. By this time, he was already famous and critically acclaimed for having directed The Motorcycle Diaries and produced City of God, so his humility took me by surprise.

For some some reason (probably because conference rooms were scarce along the beach), our professors arranged for us to use the Variety magazine tent for the session. Salles showed up in a plain white T-shirt and faded jeans, and gamely joined the impromptu circle that the class had formed on the floor.

Not only was he literally “down-to-earth” and “accessible” as he sat beside us on that tent floor, but he put us all at ease with his gentle and easygoing manner. How refreshing to have an “auteur” speak about his work with passion, soul, and zero trace of ego!

Walter Salles at Cannes 2007

There were several memorable moments and quotes from his talk, such as his anecdote about doing documentaries before he moved on to fictional stories. He believed that this training was necessary: “Before reenacting life, it is necessary to understand what triggers life and how characters function in the real world.”

He also briefly mentioned his background as a photographer. After hearing that, I had to agree with the critic who said that directors should take Fine Arts classes before learning to frame shots and the like. Exhibit B: former painters Julian Schnabel and David Fincher, both of whom had films In Competition that year (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Zodiac, respectively).

He spoke at length about the journey of bringing Che Guevara’s memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries, from page to screen. He took some liberties in adapting the book into a movie, explaining: “Sometimes it would betray the book not to betray it. The translation from book to film requires a different reality.”

Compared to the book, the film required a more visual narrative as well – showing, not telling. “Build around what you’re not telling,” he said simply, citing as an example a scene where he chose not to reveal the contents of a crucial letter that the main character read. That way, he left it open to audience interpretation and engaged them further. (Resolution on a platter is boring!)

Even when the script was complete, he spoke about straying from it several times during shooting: “We diverged from it many times because it was a very strong screenplay. Making a movie is like playing jazz music— if the melody is strong, you can bifurcate and eventually find your way back.”

He also spoke about challenges that arose even after films were complete – such as how to get films shown when Hollywood studios were paying big money for theaters to play their movies. His 1998 movie, Central Station, drew large crowds despite 80% of the theaters in Brazil showing Titanic and The Man in the Iron Mask at the height of Leo-mania. The movie went on to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, in addition to picking up several international awards. (More on the challenges of making such a film here.)

He strongly believed that local cinema was an important part of a nation’s identity, and that each country’s local film industry should be supported (despite the aforementioned dominance of Hollywood movies in most countries). On the role of cinema in society, he quoted, “‘A country without cinema is like a house with no mirrors.’ Cinema is a way to understand the world at large, to discover how we are different and yet not so different… Still, cinema must not just reflect the current reality, but be ahead of the times and anticipate things that have not been discovered yet.”

As for the emphasis on local cinema, a large source of inspiration was his origins. “The strength of a filmmaker lies in his roots. For me, it’s Brazil, a territory I know and understand.”

All creators take heed.

Credits: Salles, Walter. Cannes-in-Pennes Talk. Variety Village, La Croisette. Cannes. May 25, 2007.


Note: Fast forward six years, and Walter Salles has since gone on to direct and produce more movies about Brazil and beyond. His latest directorial effort, the movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, also premiered at Cannes and introduced his talents to a wider audience worldwide. (To adapt another iconic coming-of-age tale about life on the road, he worked with his writing partner from The Motorcycle Diaries, José Rivera. More on their creative process here.)


About the Cannes Diaries

In the summer of 2007, I did a study abroad program with my university’s Cinema Studies department at the 60th Cannes Film Festival. (Probably my favorite elective of all time, and the least painful A that I ever attained in college…)

While we snapped photos of celebs on the red carpet at several blockbuster premieres, our professors encouraged us to diversify our viewing beyond mainstream American flicks. To ensure that we watched a variety of films, course requirements included watching and writing about: 4 documentaries, 4 films that wouldn’t open theatrically in the US, 4 films from 3 countries from which we had never seen films before, 4 films by notable non-American directors, 4 debut features by American directors, 4 films directed by women, 3 retrospectives/classic films — one of which had to be a silent film… and a par-tri-idge in a pear tree. (I joke about it, but I’m glad we had to watch such an eclectic selection. It changed my whole perspective on movie-going.)

Apart from going to screenings, we attended a series of talks with various guest speakers from the entertainment community. I recorded notes from those talks and thoughts about the festival experience as a whole in my mandatory trip journal. While some entries are better-written than others (depending on how much energy I had left in me to write that day), they reflect the artsier, indie side of the festival not captured in my (star-struck) photo albums. Bon spectacle!

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