An Evening with Francis Walter Salles
Wednesday, April 28
6:45 pm Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore)
Members $20, general $25
Walter Salles will receive the Founderís Directing Award at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival. The onstage tribute at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas will include a clip reel of career highlights, an onstage interview 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 Sallesís effort to make a documentary about Jack Kerouac, the seminal novel On the Road and the Beat Generation.
Related screening: Linha de Passe
DIR: Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas (Brazil 2008, 110 min)
Presented with support from the Consulate General of Brazil in San Francisco.
By Margarita Landazurri
"Cinema is, first and foremost, the projection of a cultural identity which comes to life on the screen," Walter Salles wrote in his foreword to The Cinema of Latin America (2003). "It mirrors or should mirror this identity. But that is not all. It should also dream it. Or make it flesh and blood, with all its contradictions." 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.
The son of a banker/diplomat, Salles had a peripatetic childhood spent partly in Europe. "I had a better knowledge of Italian neorealism and the French New Wave than I did of the cinematic currents in Latin America," he recalled. Returning to Brazil as an adolescent, he discovered both Cinema Nôvo, Brazil's politicized independent cinema of the 1960s (itself influenced by European cinema), and one of the masterpieces of Brazilian silent film, Mário Peixoto's avant-garde Limite (1931). He studied at the University of Southern California, and began making documentaries and commercials in the mid-1980s. "I think I turned to documentary filmmaking very early on as a way to know a little bit more about my country and my roots," Salles has said. One of his award-winning documentaries was Life Somewhere Else (1995), a touching account of the correspondence between women's prison inmate Socorro Nobre and the Polish-born artist and Holocaust survivor Franz Krajcberg. Salles has said Nobre's personality inspired the character of Dora in his highly regarded third feature, Central Station (1998).
By the time Salles began making feature films in the early 1990s, the Brazilian film industry had been decimated. In 1990, the government shut down Embrafilme, the state-financed company that had supported filmmaking for more than 20 years. Salles's first feature, Exposure (1991)—an American-style thriller whose international cast included Peter Coyote and Tchéky Karyo—relied on non-Brazilian backing. With the change of regime in 1994, the industry began recovering. Salles's second feature, Foreign Land (1995), was well received in Brazil and beyond. But it was his next, Central Station, that earned worldwide acclaim and awards. His documentary background is evident in Central Station's images of the sertão, the arid region of northeast Brazil where Dora and Josué search for the boy's father, and in the use of non-actors in some roles.
Both the documentary influence and theme of a journey of identity would recur in Salles's subsequent films, notably his biggest international success, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), based on the pre-revolutionary life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and traveling companion Alberto Granado, and starring Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna. Many of the locals the two friends meet across the length of South America were played by real people. The film earned numerous awards at international film festivals. Salles's now trademark semi-documentary style and sense of place return in his most recent film, Linha de Passe (2008), codirected with Daniela Thomas. The film explores the lives of four brothers living with their mother in the teeming slums of São Paulo. Non-actors play three of the brothers, while Vinícius de Oliveira, playing the fourth, only became an actor after being cast as Josué in Central Station.
Salles's international success has led him to expand his cinematic horizons. He is preparing the film version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In 2008, Salles and a film crew traveled the route Kerouac took while writing the book, interviewing Beat poets and other people who inspired the novel's characters for a documentary. (Material from this documentary will be shown as a work-in-progress on Wednesday, April 28.) Along with his Motorcycle Diaries cowriter, Salles also is developing a screenplay for American Rust, based on the novel by Philipp Meyer.
His youthful discovery of Limite has taken Salles far beyond simple appreciation of the film. Director Mário Peixoto was only 21 when he made the film, and never made another. Salles supported Peixoto in his last years, until his death in 1992. In 1996, Salles founded the Mário Peixoto Archives to house Peixoto's papers, and currently is involved in restoring Limite. It's one of the projects of the World Cinema Foundation, created by Martin Scorsese to save endangered masterpieces. Salles serves on the Foundation's filmmakers' board.
With his own career booming, Salles has assumed two additional responsibilities: helping and mentoring the next generation of filmmakers, and preserving the legacy of earlier generations. He has produced or executive-produced several films by emerging Latin American directors, including Karim Ainouz's feature debut Madame Satã (SFIFF 2002), Fernando Meirelles's acclaimed City of God (2002) and Pablo Trapero's Lion's Den (2008). His own success, he says, "reinforced my need to be part of Latin American cinema. . . . Basically it reinforced my desire to produce the films of young filmmakers in Brazil and to help other people in Latin America to do their films and talk about what they see."
Walter Salles's journey of cultural identity continues to evolve, but he has refused to be pigeonholed into what he considers "colonial" notions of what his films should be. "We make films that are like the melting pot that characterizes our cultures: impure, imperfect and plural."
Margarita Landazuri writes about film history for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Turner Classic Movies Web site. Her work has appeared in various publications, including International Documentary and Release Print.
Walter Salles selected Filmography
2008 Linha de Passe (codirector)
2006 Paris je t’aime (contributing director)
2005 Dark Water
2004 The Motorcycle Diaries
1998 Central Station
1995 Foreign Land (codirector)
2009 Francis Ford Coppola
2008 Mike Leigh
2007 Spike Lee
2006 Werner Herzog
2005 Taylor Hackford
2004 Milos Forman
2003 Robert Altman
Previously Known as Akira Kurosawa Award
2002 Warren Beatty
2001 Clint Eastwood
2000 Abbas Kiarostami
1999 Arturo Ripstein
1998 Im Kwon-Taek
1997 Francesco Rosi
1996 Arthur Penn
1995 Stanley Donen
1994 Manoel De Oliveira
1993 Ousmane Sembčne
1992 Satyajit Ray
1991 Marcel Carnč
1990 Jirí Menzel
1989 Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1988 Robert Bresson
1987 Michael Powell
1986 Akira Kurosawa