Walter Salles On How His Nomadic Childhood Made Him Love Cinema

Filmmaker Walter Salles is best known for his heartfelt Brazil-set drama Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, his sprawling epic based on the journals of Che Guevara, but fans of his work may know less about the man behind the camera than they do about his films. The soft-spoken director recently premiered his new documentary Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang at the New York Film Festival and shared his inspirations, insights, and anecdotes from his childhood at two separate events.

At both the post-screening Q&A and an hour-long conversation with the director as part of the New York Film Festival Live series, the tall and lanky Salles was thoughtful, pondered his answers deeply, and smiled a lot. Sitting hunched over, and wearing monochromatic gray pants and a sweater, his words often sounded like he was speaking in poetic verse even when confronting an audience member who questioned why he would make a movie about a Chinese director that most people in U.S. probably haven’t heard of. Salles graciously conceded that it’s unlikely that his documentary will be seen in China, but that films by filmmakers on filmmakers “can echo through time.” Here are the highlights from both events. Consider this your own personal master class with Walter Salles.

On how his nomadic childhood made him love cinema

My films drift [from place to place] because my childhood had that. My father was a diplomat and we jumped from latitude to latitude. I have to say that I hated that. I missed Brazil. I missed the cultural life of Brazil – the culture of the street in Brazil. I missed the maracana, the melting pot, but this is where cinema comes in. The only place that I could find shelter, in many ways, was the cinemas and the screen. When I was 10 or 11 we were living in France, in Paris. I hated the cold. I hated the drizzle. I hated croissants, but I loved the small cinema that was very nearby. It played neorealism; it played Westerns and I loved them both. Whenever there was movement, I was more affected by it. The films that have to do with that are the ones that influenced the cinema that I do.

On making cinema that is truthful

I believe you only start to do cinema, whether it is fiction or documentary, when you forget that you are doing cinema. In the sense that you have to forget where the camera is, that people have to be so concentrated on something that it’s about registering life and not about the act of doing cinema. This is when something really tangible and truthful comes to the surface.

‘Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang’
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On making a film that may have a small audience

I was brought to cinema by films on filmmakers, many, many times…It may be true that films done by filmmakers on filmmakers may not be the ultimate blockbuster, but on the other hand, they can echo through time. I think that cinema and memory, or cinema as a form of memory, as a form to instigate memory is something quite important. So that may be one of the roles of the film…The film exists to dive into cinema. Remember that cinema is a way to understand that the world is a little bit ampler than you thought it was, a little bit larger than you thought it was. That’s important.

On how the unexpected is integral to cinema

The idea of movement is, of course, integral to cinema. It’s essential; it’s a part of cinema. Cinema for me is a journey into the unknown. Whether it is in a geographical form or in any other form but it has to convey that possibility. I would say that in Brazil, because of the continental size of our country, I am all the time facing unexpected situations and I try to incorporate them into the films. So it’s not that that it is a culture or environment that I fully control. In documentaries, I absolutely know I don’t, but in fiction, I hope I will not. I think the fiction comes alive once you have to access resources you hadn’t thought of to start with. I think Jia talks better than I do about this when he says that he gets worried when something goes right.

‘The Motorcycle Diaries’
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On how he included unplanned events in The Motorcycle Diaries

[Spoken by a member of the audience, Julia Solomonoff] I was very lucky to be his First A.D. [Assistant Director] in The Motorcycle Diaries and I have a little anecdote to share with the people. We were shooting one day on the beach and we were burnt by the sun. We took a plane and arrived in Bariloche. We slept that night and the next day had a very regular schedule. I woke up at 5 in the morning and it was covered in snow. There is no snow in the diaries that Che Guevara wrote so I was like, “Great! We have a day off.” Walter called me at like 5:30 and said, “Did you see we have snow? We have to go shoot!” Of course we didn’t have shoes to shoot; we didn’t have jackets; we didn’t have anything. Now it’s one of the moments that I really love in the film. That we went into the snow and we used this snow that was a great gift for the film. From that I learned so much. When things like nature or life gives you these kind of opportunities – to be aware, to be ready, to be alert, and to bring the crew that, to bring that excitement of that gift. That was a great lesson for me.