It was a well-timed dinner with Wim Wenders that led Juliano Ribeiro Salgado to begin crafting a documentary about his father, Brazilian photographer Sebastião. Salgado had been discussing collaborating on a project with Sebastião for years, but the turbulent relationship between father and son made deciding difficult. “Actually it’s a film I really didn’t want to do. It happened that suddenly it was the right moment and I had to jump into it,” Salgado recalls. The timing became perfect when Wenders also expressed interest in telling Sebastião’s story. And when Salgado figured out the best way to tell it, he reached out to the filmmaker, who ultimately became his co-director. The resulting film chronicles Sebastião’s role as a witness to suffering and environmental damage, as well as extreme beauty. Salgado recently spoke to AwardsLine about how the film repaired his relationship with his father and the difficulties of collaboration.
You and your father had talked about doing a project together for a while. How did it end up being a documentary?
You must know that Sebastião and I had this terrible relationship since I was a teenager. We barely spoke to each other. We could speak about soccer and about whatever we were going to be eating that night. It was awful, and Sebastião was trying to convince me to travel with him and visit an Amazonian Indian tribe north of Brazil. I was very scared to go. I was afraid we would have this Kinski/Herzog moment in Amazonia. That’s how our relationship was going. But I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years now, so I decided I was going to bring a camera. It was one of Sebastião’s last projects of importance. I filmed Sebastião there. When I came back to Paris where we live, I edited those pictures, and I showed Sebastião and then something really amazing happened. The way you film someone—the angles you use to show this person, what you decide to shoot—says a lot about the person holding the camera. When my dad saw the way I saw him, he was so touched that he started crying, and we had this intense family moment, some sort of a reconciliation moment. But it was even more than that because we were all overwhelmed at what was happening. Then for me, suddenly it was also the realization that it was possible to make a film about him. Sebastião agreed for me to do something about him. I had this intuition that what was really important about Sebastião was all the stories he used to tell us every time he came back from those trips. So I sent an email to Wim to tell him that a movie about Sebastião should be a movie about the witness, not the photographer. He told me he had exactly the same intuition. That’s how it started.
You spent about a year and a half editing—how many hours of footage did you end up shooting?
If you decided to see all the pictures without stopping, day or night, you’d need two months to see everything. What we had since the beginning of the film was the story of Sebastião. We knew it was important that we had him telling through the way that he learned how to photograph, how to mingle with people that were so foreign to him, how to find a reason for his photography. We knew there was a transformation. Somehow we already knew what was going to be our main arc. This question relates to the odd fact that there are two directors on this thing. It was all very complementary, but when we got to the editing room it was impossible to be together. So, I started editing the film and two, three months later I showed Wim, proudly, the results. Wim, who is such a nice guy, starts shouting in the editing room. Really shouting. He decides it’s completely wrong; he’s got to take the editing. He edits it on his own and comes back two months later with a result that’s actually not very good. So we kept passing the ball to each other for a year, literally, until the moment we came to realize that none of us could actually achieve a film that was on the levels of Sebastião’s story. There was such a powerful thing about it. None of us managed to get it right. So at this point, we did something that was very difficult for both of us—we had to share the film. We had to sit together behind the editing station and edit the film together. By doing that, you have to give up a lot of the things your gut feeling tells you it has to be. It’s a film we both really believe in and we both like. We both believe it’s a much better film than the one we were trying to do separately.
What did you learn about your father as you were making the film?
When we chose what reportage we were going to put together, I knew precisely what stories he could tell so this would tell his story. It’s all the subtext, the meta-language. Suddenly, I understood how much he had understood, how much he had gone through, all the things he had seen, how much that had changed him. That reconciled me with the man who had left home. I knew there was a reason for him to do that, but still I held a massive grudge. The next time I came back to Paris, when I saw Sebastião again, we became friends. I was the problem in the relationship, and I didn’t know that.