Late in one of the greatest filmic encounters with what scholars have started to conceptualise as the “long 1968,” we listen to a voiceover (VO) calmly narrating the gradual disappearance of one of the film’s protagonists from the visual record.1 As we watch a short montage of images showing the director’s mother in home videos, his VO informs us that while his “mother appears in a number of home films [and] seems happy, basking in being alive” in footage from the 1960s, this shifts from the 1970s on: images of her “become scarcer, and from ’80 onward, there’s hardly anything at all.” This gradual disappearance of the narrator’s mother from the family’s private filmic record – her becoming-invisible – might register for the attentive viewer as a sign of her death – indeed: of her suicide – not least because this scene appears towards the end of a long sequence of scenes in which death dominates, including the death of both Jan Palach, who burnt himself on 16 January 1969 in protest against the sense of resignation that had befallen Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring, and of Killian Fritch, who coined the most famous slogan of May ’68 (“Sous les paves, la plage!” [“Under the paving-stones, the beach!”]) and who committed suicide at Gaité, a Paris subway station meaning “joy.” Yet while the narrator comments on each of these deaths, carefully analysing how the images make use of – instrumentalise – them, he does not mention, let alone discuss, the death of his mother. Instead, he admits that of all the images he has of Elisa Gonçavales, he always returns to those showing her in China in 1966, the moment of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, because these “poor, badly filmed images” provide a record of his mother’s “encounter with the reality of a country that was the opposite of everything she knew. As I remember it,” he says, “nothing made my mother light up like the memory of that time. She spoke of it with delight, with joy, with an intensity that time would come to steal from her. She was happy in China, and that’s why I like to think of her there, back when everything seemed possible.”

The film in which this moment of narrative intensity occurs is João Moreira Salles’ exquisite essay film, No Intenso Agora (In the Intense Now, 2017) – a film I consider a peer to Chris Marker’s 1977 landmark (and quite different) film about 1968, Le fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without A Cat, literally meaning “The atmosphere in the air is red”), which together with Harun Farocki’s oeuvre has clearly influenced Salles. This moment, in my view, not only encapsulates the film’s essence but also can be regarded as a highly compressed distillation of Salles’ career as a filmmaker – a career defined by his attempt to investigate what happens “when opposites come together,” as he puts it elsewhere in In the Intense Now, a film consisting exclusively of archival footage. Without question, this intense interest in the intersection of oppositional forces has to do with his personal background, which surely must be one of the most unlikely for any filmmaker who has ever worked. Together with his three siblings, including Walter Salles, director of acclaimed films such as Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998) and Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), João Moreira Salles inherited the fortune of his late father, Walther Moreira Salles, who founded Unibanco, which is today Itaú-Unibanco, Brazil’s largest private-sector bank, and served as ambassador to the United States in the 1950s. As founder of the cultural magazine piauí (2006 – ) and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles, one of Brazil’s most important cultural institutions, João Moreira Salles is one of the most important progressive figures in Brazilian cultural life.2

This background surely augmented his ability to get close to an important cultural figure such as the internationally acclaimed classical pianist Nelson Freire, who became the eponymous subject of Salles’ essay-documentary film from 2003, or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the famous Brazilian labour leader who would become Brazil’s thirty-fifth president and who granted Salles and his small crew considerable access at the tail-end of his fourth and finally successful presidential campaign in 2002. Yet this same background also causes a considerable problem for Salles: namely, to figure out how to negotiate the challenge of trying to heed the “primacy of the object,” as Theodor W. Adorno once put it, while simultaneously acknowledging his own subject position that crucially informs (not least in terms of power) the subject-object dialectic characteristic of his documentary gaze.3 From his earliest efforts to his masterpiece, Salles gradually translates this considerable ethical and political problem into a cinematic problem, self-consciously approaching it as a problem of film language and ultimately of point of view or cinematic attitude towards the world he films. From Notícias de uma Guerra Particular (News From a Personal War, 1999), which for the first time confronted Brazilians on television with the violence taking place in the favelas, via his films about Freire and Lula, to Santiago (2007), his by now semi-legendary essay-documentary about his father’s long-time butler, to, finally, his most recent film, In the Intense Now, his career can be understood as his attempt to put himself in positions that force him to figure out how to respond to unlooked-for encounters – moments of surprise that irrupt from within his carefully circumscribed production scenarios in such ways that they subvert his control over his subjects and thereby put his authorial privilege at stake. Over the course of his career, Salles becomes increasingly aware of his own complicated subject-position that inevitably defines these encounters and reflects upon the question of which subject can voluntarily put himself in situations in which surprising encounters can happen, including surprises predicated on a significant power imbalance between the object of the director’s gaze and the director himself.

Thus, whereas the early News From a Personal War is still a cinematically traditional, well-intentioned “talking heads” documentary that lives off the very access Salles was given to film in a favela (without reflecting on the very fact that it was he who was given access), Santiago, which ultimately took him a decade and a half to complete, self-consciously and at times unflatteringly inscribes Salles’ own positionality into the film as the son of the very man whom his camera’s object served for three decades. This film, then, is as much about Salles as it is about its ostensible subject matter, not in an autobiographical sense but in the sense that it is about his struggle to find an appropriate attitude toward the very unlooked-for encounters to which he seeks to subject himself (and his camera’s objects). This ongoing struggle ultimately leads Salles to develop and affirm a nuanced will-to-form. For he recognises that his interest in exploring what happens when opposites come together must avoid the pitfalls of “naturalism” and “objectivity” and instead affirm form as the necessary means by which to call attention to questions of power (and how he is implicated in them) that sit at the heart of these encounters.

The ultimate lesson he draws from this ethical imperative – one he dramatises in Santiago through how he inscribes himself into the film as an at-times rather dictatorial director – is a remarkably political one: instead of directing his camera at the “wretched of the earth,” as he did in News From a Personal War and in the original footage he shot of Santiago in the early 1990s, he decided to turn his camera on his own world (see Nelson Freire, Entreatos, and In the Intense Now), thereby very much breaking a taboo among the wealthy classes in South America, who seldom show themselves on screen. But merely turning the lens on his own class would be as insufficient as filming the dispossessed in a cinema verité documentary style; rather, it is only through the meticulous attention he pays to form that it is possible for him to transform these unlooked-for encounters into something that helps us see things that perhaps even he was not necessarily aware of filming at the moment when his camera’s aperture opened onto the world: “we don’t always know what we’re filming,” the VO remarks early on in In the Intense Now as we watch home-movie footage inadvertently revealing class relations in Brazil. Salles, it is fair to say, has taught himself to embrace this insight as his modus operandi – and in this regard, perhaps, he is his mother’s son, indeed, because, as we learn at the end of the scene with which I began above, she linked the experience of the unlooked-for encounter – the shock triggered by a moment of surprise – to “the ineffable emotion of the unexpected form.” But whereas for her the shock of surprise manifested itself in the emotion she gained from beholding an unexpected form, for her son this relation is transformed into an imperative for his filmmaking: to create situations in which the unexpected can occur and to find formal means by which to transform the encounter in such a way that it is given a form that solicits an ineffable emotion in the viewer precisely because the inherent difference between the object of the lens’s gaze and the subject filming it is not immediately erased in a pseudo-liberal gesture of equality. Which is to say that in his films – perhaps no more so than in Santiago and now in the most explicit fashion in In the Intense Now – the utopian goal of equality is kept alive precisely because they aesthetically render sensible the very impossibility of obtaining and securing it in the existing regime of power. It is through this unlooked-for encounter with the irreducible difference inherent to power that viewers might be able to share in the experience of the intensity of the now that might be the very aspect of “1968” that has never relinquished its potential – a potential that is still awaiting its actualisation by what Gilles Deleuze called “a subjective redeployment on the collective level.”4 It is precisely this need for a collective subjective redeployment that In the Intense Now seems to hint at with its closing moment when the repetition of an image exuding pure joy (of a young female student in Paris during the heady May days) is juxtaposed with an image of the Louis Lumière’s La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Factory, 1895) across a cut that links the individual and the collective, the bourgeois intellectual and the worker, a spontaneous image and a staged one, thereby confronting the viewer of this moment with one final – utopian – unlooked-for encounter that demands of us to give it form.

The interview took place 9 February 2018 in my home prior to the opening screening of In the Intense Now at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, whose director, Danny Ladely, I want to thank for helping me bring Mr. Salles to Lincoln, Nebraska.

How did you end up becoming a documentary filmmaker?

Completely by accident, rather than by vocation. I was studying economics at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. During my BA, I decided that my future was geared towards an academic career. I was a good student and liked the field of economics. A professor of mine had gone to MIT and encouraged me to apply for a PhD in the U.S. I was accepted at Yale, but because there’s a gap between the end of the semester in Brazil and the start of the semester in the Northern Hemisphere, I had six months with nothing to do. Just then, my brother, Walter, who’s the real filmmaker in the family, got back from Japan, where he had gone to test a new camera that Sony had just released. This was a Betacam, which had the video and the recorder together, without the wire linking the camera to the tape. This was fairly new at the time and gave filmmakers working in video a little bit of the same freedom that they had in the ’60s with smaller, more mobile cameras. So he went to Japan, invited by Sony – we’re talking 1985 or 1986. Sony lent him the camera, and he spent a month there interviewing Akira Kurosawa, the architect Arata Isozaki, and Toshiro Mifune, amongst many other people. When he returned, he didn’t know if the 80 hours that he had brought back to Brazil had any rhyme or reason. Since I was just waiting to go to the U.S., he asked me to put it together, to try to watch the raw footage and help him find a script or a thread. I did this, and it became a television series of four segments that was aired on Brazilian network television.

 Japão: Uma Viagem no Tempo (Japan, A Trip Through Time, Walter Salles, 1986) was a big deal, because it was the first time that an independent production was aired on basic cable in Brazil. It went really well. The Chinese government saw it and invited him to go to China the following year to do the same there. However, he was already thinking about fiction: he had a script, and he was thinking about moving from television to cinema, and from nonfiction to fiction. So he accepted but told the Chinese government that he would send a crew ahead of him whom he’d join two or three weeks later.

He convinced me to go with the crew and to be his ersatz director for two or three weeks, and I decided to do it. At the time, I was very much in love with someone who became my first wife. I knew that if I went to the U.S. she wouldn’t be able to join me, and so Walter’s suggestion was kind of what I needed to hear in order not to go to the U.S. As it turns out, I never went for the PhD. I went to China instead, where I spent 40 days traveling around, and in the end my brother only joined me during the last week.

I directed the series without ever having been on a set before. For me, it was completely new. I remember I was at Tiananmen Square on the first day. We arrived there on a Monday, and Tuesday was our first day of shooting. I remember that the cinematographer asked me the scariest question that I had ever heard, and which I had to answer: where should he put the camera? I simply had not realised deciding this was the director’s job. I thought that my job as director was to have beautiful thoughts and that the cinematographer would realise them. So I had to learn just by doing it. Back in Brazil I put the thing together, writing the narration. Formally, it was very conventional, but, at the time, in Brazil it was new, and China, O Império do Centro (1987) became a success.

João Moreira and Walter Salles

Since then, I’ve never stopped doing film; but it was never a calling for me as it had been for Walter. To this day, my worldview is not oriented by film; it never was. Film was merely on the periphery of my interests, as I always felt more connected to the written word than to the moving image. To this day, I don’t really see myself as a truly professional filmmaker.

There’s another thing, not about myself, but about my generation. The generation that came before me was really one of cinephiles. These are the Brazilians who had their imagination shaped by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and in Brazil by Glauber Rocha, by the New Wave. A generation that went to cine clubs and cinematheques to discuss not only cinema but also politics. Their conversations revolved around cinema and the state of the country. Cinema was a filter that gave you a critical view of Brazil. You could not dissociate cinema from the social problems of the country; film was an instrument with which to tackle them. For my generation, meanwhile, cinema was much more of an indulgence than a natural guide for our imagination or our political consciousness, and so I didn’t have friends who were cinephiles. I didn’t have a group of people who would leave the cinematheque, go to a bar, and drink and discuss how life is shaped by cinema, so cinema never became central to my life.

And because of that, I decided to teach in order to find reasons to love cinema. I became interested in documentary filmmaking mainly because I decided to teach it, not because I saw myself as a filmmaker.

When did you start teaching?

I started teaching in ’96 or ’97, because I wanted to make a film about football, and I wanted it to be observational. I was really impressed by Direct Cinema, at that point, but I hadn’t seen the films. I had only read about them, because in ’95, ’96 they were not easily available commercially. While I only knew about Direct Cinema from books, it struck me that these films were highly interesting and very novel as far as film grammar was concerned, at least in comparison to the very stale Griersonian documentaries that kept being made in Brazil. You see: some things tend to arrive late in my country.

The project was a trilogy, three films for television. When I started to do the first one, I just couldn’t edit it because it was filmed the wrong way. I hadn’t known how to film it; I didn’t know how the grammar worked. So I decided to propose to my alma mater, the Catholic University in Rio, to the communications department, a course on direct cinema, on observational cinema. I took advantage of a trip to the States, and while I was in New York I went around knocking on filmmakers’ doors. I went to the Maysles Brothers, to D. A. Pennebacker, to Robert Drew, and I asked them if I could buy their films, and they sold me VHS copies. I wrote to Frederick Wiseman’s production company in Boston with the same question.

I went back to Brazil, watched the films, and wrote down all of the ways that the images came together. Then I went back to shooting, and eventually I managed to edit the material I had shot, which became Futebol (1998). But I was only ever able to do that because I would have to teach a whole semester on the genre in six months’ time. That’s when I started to understand the beauty of nonfiction cinema and how throughout the history of cinema it has worked as a kind of laboratory for form.

Documentary has always been ahead of the curve in terms of tackling new ways of telling stories visually. For example, nothing in the 1920s compares to Dziga Vertov as far as experimenting with what one can do with form, with the medium of film. During the 1930s you had the British Documentary Film Movement around John Grierson, and they invented the voiceover. They invented equipment in order to go into the factories and the housing projects and actually interview people. The result was that for the first time, you had a worker’s voice on the big screen, since they had cameras that could move there and film them on location rather than in studios.

Then there was Jean Rouch and his amazing work with cameras that were very light, and then you had the Direct Cinema movement in the United States. So it has always been a realm of invention. This is not because documentary filmmakers are more restless, original, or inventive, but for simple economic reasons. Because feature film, cine-fiction, is so expensive, very early on an industry was built around it; and when you have an industry, you tend to homogenise the language, the grammar. You have producers. You have screenwriters.

You have to recoup your investment, and it’s very expensive, so you do not have much room in which you can actually experiment with form. Of course, you have people like Orson Welles and later Godard who break the mould. But in documentary filmmaking that happens all the time because you don’t have an industry setting a pattern for how stories should be told. That gives filmmakers a lot of latitude to try out new ways of telling stories.

So when I discovered that, for me, non-fiction filmmaking became a way of telling stories – not only about the world but also about film itself. As I see it, an interesting documentary is not one that has an interesting subject; it’s a documentary that’s interesting as cinema, and it is interesting as cinema because it’s trying something new as far as film grammar is concerned. It took me a long time to realise this, which is why most of the films I made in the ’90s – television programs, not films – are highly uninteresting as far as cinema is concerned. In them, the form predated the film: it was already there.

News From a Personal War

So do you consider Notícias de uma Guerra Particular (News From a Personal War, 1999) your first “proper” film or rather Nelson Freire (2003)?

News from a Personal War was still very conventional. I think it’s very uninteresting as film. It is important in Brazil for one reason only. Although it’s a conventional television program rather than a film, it marks the first time that a certain kind of violence was shown on screen. Before it, you had films about violence, but not about this particular kind of violence that takes place in the favelas, which is non-ideological, urban, with no aim whatsoever, with no project, with no strategy. It’s the molecular violence described by Enzensberger in a short essay he wrote called “Civil Wars.”5 We are not in a civil war in Brazil, but the same dynamic is in place. You cannot win, because there’s no objective.

How did you get access to the favelas in the first place, given that you’re clearly a complete outsider?

The film was commissioned by French television, and it wasn’t meant to be a film about violence in Rio. I live in Rio and love the city. I decided with my co-director, Kátia Lund, who went on to co-direct Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002) with Fernando Meirelles, that we should try to portray and witness what was happening in the city where we lived.6 To bear witness, so to speak. At that particular point, violence had reached a threshold that was almost unbearable.

The strategy of dealing with that kind of violence was devised by a hard right-wing general, General Nílton Cerqueira, who was central in fighting the armed political resistance to the military regime back in the late 1960s and ’70s. At the time we made the film, he was the secretary of defence for the State of Rio de Janeiro. He devised a strategy, and because he’s a military man, that strategy was drawn from war, with a technical vocabulary to go with it: you go into “enemy” territory, you “occupy” it. When policemen entered one of those favelas and actually drew their guns and shot, they received a bonus at the end of the month. You can imagine the effect of such incentives: the more you shoot, the more you see your pay check grow. The level of violence there became intolerable.

And so we decided to do a film about that. We decided very early on not to interview social scientists or other specialists. We only wanted to interview those who are actually in the line of fire, and you have basically three actors that fit the description: the policeman, the drug dealer, and the one who’s caught in the middle, the favela dweller.

News From a Personal War

We had the first two. We had a very interesting chief of police in Rio, Hélio Luz. He was a leftist. He was a militant in the ’60s, a Marxist, and now he was the chief of police, working in tandem with the right-wing general. They were able to work together because they were both honest, and corruption in the police force in Rio was rampant. They decided to set their ideological differences aside and clean up corruption. Luz also accepted his position in order to speak out about how there was a social component to violence in Rio, and this is what he says in the film, so it was easy to interview the police. It was also easy to interview people who lived in the favelas. We knew them. Interviewing the drug dealer was trickier, but Kátia had produced a music video for Michael Jackson, who had come to Rio to have the video for “They Don’t Care About Us” (1996) directed by Spike Lee. In the favela, Santa Marta, Spike Lee had to negotiate with the drug dealer, and Kátia was the producer. She actually got permission to shoot in the favela, and so she said, “I know Marcio”7, the one who runs the trade there. “He’s in hiding, and if you want to go there and speak to him, I can arrange it.” So I met him, and I told him that we wanted to do a film in which we wanted to hear his perspective and the perspective of kids who took up arms and became drug dealers. He agreed, and so we got access.

I think News From a Personal War is an important film because it was the first to show what is actually happening in the cities of Brazil. But it’s subject-driven, and it’s not interesting as cinema. Nelson Freire might be my first film in which I am conscious of film form.

Nelson Freire

So how did you pick this one as a project?

In 1999, I had met Eduardo Coutinho (1933-2014), arguably one of the most important filmmakers in Brazilian history. He was a documentary filmmaker, and he became my dearest friend. We spent countless hours talking about documentaries and nonfiction cinema, and he introduced me to the idea that cinema should think about cinema. Cinema should be about what’s out there, but it should also be about itself. He was a reader of Walter Benjamin, and he pointed out to me the tension between information and experience that Benjamin tackles in “The Storyteller.”8 Indeed, I came to realise that when you have the former, the latter leaves the room, and vice versa. I think that documentaries are very inefficient vehicles for imparting information. For that you have journalism. But documentaries can be really good at giving you an experience of something, be it a place, a person, a profession, or what have you.

So I decided to make a film about a classical pianist who is not particularly fond of expressing himself through words.9 He’s very shy. He’s nonverbal, and the challenge was not to give information about his world but to make the viewer enter into a certain kind of mental, sensuous, aesthetic world in which you actually feel the music and what goes on in the head of a classical pianist without actually being bombarded by information – how many CDs he sells, who his teachers were, how many international competitions he won, etc. I decided the film’s structure didn’t have to be such that one scene led to the other in a linear way where you had to see the beginning of the film in order to understand the middle, and the middle to understand the end.

The film starts almost at the end, with him walking off stage.

Yes, he’s coming to receive the applause for his performance.

Which he doesn’t really want to.

He doesn’t really want to, and he’s just finished playing. You hear his last note. That’s how it ends, but the idea that you could actually mix all those sequences in different order and you would have still a film, maybe even a better film, was something with which I wanted to experiment. So I decided to ask the guys that work with DVDs whether it would be possible to have a scramble function so that you can see the film in a completely random order, in which the only things that stay in place are the first and last scenes – because they have the title and credits – but everything in the middle is completely mixed up, which gives you, in fact, almost an infinite number of films.

Nelson Freire

There are installations like that. Lev Manovich has written about this in The Language of New Media (2001). He calls it databank cinema.

I didn’t know.

Yes. For some of his films he recorded hundreds of shots and then created an algorithm where the properties of one frame affect the choice of what the next frame can be.10 At installations, one sees the results, and each viewing of the “looped” film is a unique film: you never see the same film twice. In your case, the DVD of Nelson Freire actually does just this, right?

Yes, it has this function, and as far as I know it’s the only DVD that has it. It was developed in Brazil. I think I saw it three or four times in random mode, and I would say that at least two of those times, the film I saw was more interesting than the one I had actually put together. Maybe because I was seeing it for the first and last time.

Nelson Freire is the first film where the way the gears work was as important to me as the subject matter. This is something I always say to students. It’s very common when you teach to have students come with their eyes glowing, because they have an idea for a documentary. Their ideas almost always have to do with the subject matter but nothing to do with the film’s form. I always ask, how will you tell the story? They never seem to think about this on their own because form appears to them as a given. I tell them that every time something truly remarkable occurred in the history of nonfiction cinema, it was not because someone developed a new subject but because someone came up with a new way to tell an old story.


So Nelson Freire was a breakthrough for you, and it was your first film made for movie theatres. You then made a documentary about Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2002 presidential campaign, Entreatos (2004). Though this is also a film about one man, it’s a very different kind of film, and not just because of the subject matter. That you were given that kind of access to Lula is remarkable. I wonder how you adjusted your strategy of filming?

This was Lula’s fourth run for the presidency. In a country like Brazil, which has always been run by the same kind of people, with the same kind of social background, to have someone like Lula actually becoming president is a watershed: it changes everything.11 In the history of cinema there’s this particular kind of filmmaker who has the urge to witness things: something is happening in front of them, and they are compelled to pick up a camera. I felt a bit like that with Lula. A story like that happens only once in a lifetime, and I thought it would be dereliction of duty if, as a documentary filmmaker in Brazil, I did not try to get close to this unfolding story and produce a document that would be more important than the film itself. I have close to 240 hours of raw footage. The film is 117 minutes long. In this difference lies the limitation of the film. With such momentous events, the document will always be more important than your interpretation of it. The document is the footage, the interpretation is the film itself.

So I reached out to Lula and proposed that I make the film – I didn’t know him – and he agreed. Yet even though he’d given me access, I realized there was a chance that he and his team would change their mind once we were inside his bubble during the last forty days of the campaign, which was what we agreed to do. So I thought that this would be a film about the possibility of making the film; I thought it was going to be a film about the negotiations over access. That’s why I have about 300 hours of footage, and I would say that at least 200 hours are of the crew itself being filmed. I’m filming the producer, and the cinematographer is filming me, trying to gain access to the rooms, to the hotels, to the cars, to the airplanes. In the end, we didn’t have to use most of that footage because access was really extraordinary.

Lula didn’t have any doubt that he was going to win. His only question was whether he’d win in the first or second round, but he knew that he would win. This made it that much easier for us because it’s much easier to film victory than defeat.

So where in Entreatos can you find this thought about the inner workings of the film? Well, Lula is arguably the most gifted politician in Brazil since Getúlio Vargas (1882 – 1954), who was a great populist leader in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s. Getúlio’s connection to the people was truly amazing. This is true for Lula as well: Lula becomes Lula in front of the crowds. He truly connects to the common Brazilian. It’s politics as mass movement, rather than politics done in walled rooms by people smoking cigars, although there’s a lot of that. When he goes out to a rally, there aren’t just 30,000, 40,000 people but 500,000 or one million people.

So as a documentary filmmaker, you have to ask yourself how to capture a man on stage facing 500,000 people – as far as the eye can see, all of them are crying because they see themselves in Lula; for the first time, they feel that they are reaching power because a man like them, someone who comes from the same background, is rising to the highest office in Brazil. In 2002, it was suddenly as if most Brazilians were finally gaining autonomy and becoming agents of their own history. That’s very moving when it happens. But how do you film that when you only have one camera and when you’re sharing a stage with Brazilian network television, the Brazilian media, and international media, all vying for space and pushing you around? You’re not Leni Riefenstahl. You don’t have Goebbels helping you to stage the perfect shot in order to portray the relation of the leader to the masses, which is very important to understand the power of Lula. (Please note that I’m not putting Lula in the authoritarian bracket. I only mention Riefenstahl as an example of someone who was able to film a mass movement efficiently because the whole thing was staged for her cameras.)

So when I got back into the editing room, I realised that the images of the big rallies were just a pale representation of what I had actually witnessed. It was good as journalism because it was proof. It was evidence that this actually happened, but it didn’t convey the power of the event, the experience of it, and I believe that a film should not be a degraded version of reality. It should be either comparable to reality or a heightened version of reality, and that’s why it’s very hard to convey mass movements, for instance, in television and cinema.

Orson Welles came to Brazil in 1942 to try to film the “Carnaval” segment for It’s All True, a film he never finished. He realised quite early on that he wasn’t able to capture through his lenses the power and energy of what he had in front of his eyes. So he went to a small fishing village in the northeast of Brazil and made a small film. To film Carnival itself, well, that overwhelmed him.12 Similarly, it’s impossible to film a game of football and convey the actual emotion of being there.

It took me a long time in the editing room to reach a hard decision, which is not to use, to forget, all the images in which Lula is in his element – when he is amongst the people – because those scenes are not representative of the actual experience of being there and seeing it. On the other hand, when you’re flying from a small city in the Amazon to another hamlet in the Amazon and you had a rally here and you’ll have another rally there, and this is just the way of going from point A to point B where the actual event happens – this movement, the trip itself, is very unimportant when it is experienced. It’s just people saying things in between the big events, so they don’t have any importance while they’re being lived.

But because they are in a film, and because the film structures them in a certain way, they become more than mere information and instead tell you more about Lula: what he thinks, how he sees himself in history, how he compares himself to international political figures like Lech Wałęsa or others, etc. When you’re filming this, you don’t realise that what you’re seeing and hearing is really revealing as to who this guy is and what is happening with him, with Brazil. You only take notice later on, mainly because it is now taken out of reality and put into a structure, which is the film. When shaped by the film it becomes something altogether different. It becomes more in its new home, in the film, than it was in reality itself. So it’s just the opposite of choosing a scene where he’s in front of 500,000 people, which gets degraded, smaller, in film. It’s like the old Norma Desmond line, “It’s the pictures that got small,” and she’s right: cinema should make things bigger.13

In Entreatos, everything you see works because it’s bigger than it was during the event itself. Entreatos means “Intermissions”, what lies between, what happens during the pauses, the boring down-time in a campaign. These are moments that were not infused with energy and thought and awareness. So the idea was to make a film not about the intense moments but about the weak ones, the forgettable ones: to film not the events that Lula would remember but the small moments he would probably not recall if you asked about them the next day.

Lula passing sandwiches

Lula criticising Lech Wałęsa

Such as him eating a sandwich on a flight between campaign stops.

Yeah, the sandwich that he ate, or what he said about Lech Wałęsa, or his statement about using a tie instead of wearing overalls or not being nostalgic for the factory.14 I met Walęsa in 1980, in Rome. […] Wałęsa left there with 60 million. I don’t know if it was dollars, to set up a printing press for Solidarity. I left there without as much as my airfare. Why? Because the entire Christian Democratic movement and the entire West wanted to overthrow the Communist regime. So I had far more members in my union rank-and-file than Wałęsa, but he was wined and dined all over the world because he was fighting against Communism. He came to power not because of his organisation but because the conservative Church put him there. And the rest is history, because he didn’t do fiddly-squat in office. He had no party, he had nothing. But Wałęsa was a spin-off of a conservative Catholic Church. I was the result of Liberation Theology and trade unionists. A totally different story.”] It was not an easy decision to discard all those rallies because I’m throwing away the most important element in understanding Lula as a politician, which is Lula and the people.

Did he respond?

I never showed him Entreatos. But I do know that he saw it. I don’t know if he liked it, but I know that some people around him didn’t dislike it, so that’s good enough, and the film was shown in the theatres about two years after he came to office, so he was riding really high at the time.


Your next released film, Santiago (2007), which is about your family’s butler, is one that you had actually shot well before Entreatos. You shot the footage in 1992 but then abandoned it. So, in a sense you made a trilogy of films about men: Nelson Freire, Lula, Santiago.

I’m particularly interested in the historical distance that ultimately allowed you to make Santiago in the editing room when you went back more than a decade later. This raises a very fundamental question about the cinema, which you also discussed with German filmmaker Andres Veiel in Berlin: journalism is primarily interested in conveying information, whereas documentary, in the best cases, wants its audience not just to see the subject but also to be confronted with the question of how it sees, or gets to see, the subject.15

That’s a very good way of putting it. As the film makes clear, Santiago is a documentary I tried to make when I was 32 or 33: I shot it, but I wasn’t able to put it together at the time. I just failed. The film had a feeling of insincerity. It was false. It was artificial, and I didn’t know why. I thought the problem was the way I’d shot the film, and I just put it aside.

I went back to the film when I was 43 or 44. A couple of things had happened between when I first worked on it and when I revisited the material: time, basically, and the fact that you become aware of your mortality. You still feel immortal when you’re in your 30s, but you become mortal when you begin to see that there’s an end point in life, even if it’s still far off, and you think about that. I think this fact enabled me to understand one of Santiago’s major themes: time itself and the way it consumes things and brings them to an end, either by destroying them or just by sheer oblivion: you forget about things.

That was his main theme, and, of course, I wasn’t able to understand that when I was in my early 30s, other than intellectually. That’s one thing. The other thing is that I had by then been in continuous conversations with Eduardo Coutinho, and these questions about film itself – questions not about what people are shooting but about why: why are they taking a camera?, what explains the urge to shoot?, and why are they shooting in that particular way?


I decided to think about why I shot Santiago the way I did. Why such beautiful frames? Why so claustrophobically beautiful? Why such elegance? Why such meticulous arrangements of frame and light? It became clear to me that the way I shot Santiago expressed a power relation. I could shoot him that way because he used to work for my father, and although at the time I thought my meticulousness and fastidiousness was an expression of care towards him, I soon discovered that it wasn’t just that. I don’t disavow the fact that I really liked him, and the desire to make a film about him is something that has to do with love, but, at the same time, it has to do with power. It has to do with the ability to say things to a person you wouldn’t say to someone who had not spent his or her life working for your father.

So it dawned on me that this is a film in which either I become part of the story or the film doesn’t exist. It’s very obvious now, but it wasn’t then, not least since it’s also a little bit painful: it’s not a realisation you come to easily because you have to acknowledge that there are certain traits in you, traits that probably still persist, that are not as complimentary to your self-image as you would like. Your narcissistic shield goes kaput.

This does manifest itself through the presence of the off-screen directions.

Yes. In the film I tried to put together back when I was in my 30s, you would never have seen this. I would only use that last take. Coutinho used to say, “the two most perverse words in any language are perfection and purity,” and perfection and purity drove the way I shot Santiago. It had to be perfect, and where there’s perfection, there’s no life. Where there’s perfection, there’s power – the power to erase everything that does not conform to your idea of purity. There’s a notion of not accepting life the way it is: dirty and incomplete and full of contradictions.

So in that “perfect” version, you would never see the mistakes. You would only see the last shot, which was the Platonic, perfect shot, which is the complete opposite of life. So it took time for me to be ready to look for the cracks where life bleeds into the material. I discovered them in what came before and after the shot – before I say, “camera,” and after I say, “cut.” Sound kept rolling, and in those leftover sound tracks I identified the truth of the material, interactions that were not artificial and that showed me why all the rest was phony.

So, again, it’s the old Chris Marker lesson of looking at the borders, of looking not at the centre but at what’s happening before and after. Werner Herzog says the same in, I think, Grizzly Man (2005). If I’m not wrong, at some point, he says, “What actually happens in the film happens after the scene is finished,” and I think it’s a beautiful scene of the camera rolling, and then nothing happens, and the guy goes away, and suddenly you have foxes coming and walking on top of a tent, because the camera was left on by mistake, and you have something really beautiful that you couldn’t plan for if you were after the perfect shot. It’s beautiful because it shatters your plans. It’s a wonderful mistake. It’s a gift, a surprise, life being enriched by something that was not in the plan. Perfection also has to do with planning and striving for the elimination of everything that is not planned for, and I came to believe that documentaries should be the opposite of that. You should go to the world without a map and accept what it is giving you.

So I came to Santiago, to the editing room of Santiago, ten years older. The passing of time had ceased to be an idea and was now a fact that ran through my body. During these ten years Coutinho had become a great friend, and all of our conversations also came into the editing room. I had moved on, and I essentially abhorred my previous way of doing films, in which beauty – an aesthetes’ conception of beauty – was more important than truth. I know that both things – beauty and truth – can come together, but this was beauty as the elimination of truth, beauty as the elimination of surprise and of randomness. In those ten years I also gained an awareness of my position as someone who had power and, at the same time, a consciousness of the fact that every documentary is a power game in which the one behind the camera is the one with the power – even, however momentarily, when filming the next President of Brazil.

In the film, I am more powerful than my subject because I choose what to film, how to frame, how to edit. So, in a sense, Santiago can also be viewed as a distillation of one of the main characteristics of the documentary, i.e., the fact that it is a genre that has a power-relation dynamic at its core. In Santiago it’s very explicit, because besides the fact that you have this power imbalance between the director and the character, you also have the extra-diegetic power imbalance between the servant Santiago and me as the son of the master: my father, for whom Santiago worked. It’s there, and it’s explicit.

I think that that kind of power dynamic occurs even in films by Jean Rouch, who spent his whole life thinking of how to make things more equal, how to share the film with his characters, how to share authorship of the work with them, in what he called shared anthropology. But this is a utopian dream: it’s a horizon you strive for but never reach because, in the end, the film bears the signature of the director. So I think Santiago works in many different ways, including as a film about documentary and about how power structures every single nonfiction film.

What you describe here reminds me of what you say in No Intenso Agora, namely that you’ve “always been interested in what happens when opposites come together.” Santiago is, as you said, clearly about this coming-together of opposites, both on the level of form and on the biographical level, given that you’re coming from the family for whom Santiago worked his entire life. Class-wise, you two are complete opposites, as was the case with News From a Personal War.

Complete opposites.

So the question for the documentarian, then, is how to film one’s subject without falling into the trap of erasing the very difference that structures the real-world relationship between the one who films and the one who is being filmed, perhaps especially when the class differences are so stark as they are between you and Santiago, or you and the people in the favela. What you are trying to do is to follow Jean Rouch and make things a bit more equal – but ethically and politically, it seems to me that the mistake would be to end up pretending that things are indeed equal between you and your subject. So, in a way, you have to fail in order to remain true to your subject.

That’s perfect. I completely agree with you. You have to be responsible for the fact that it is an unequal situation. You have to know this because power lies with you: you have responsibility towards the other because the other is the weak link in this power dynamic, so you have to know what to do with the power you have. Paul Ricœur wrote that where there is power, there is fragility. And where there is fragility, there is responsibility. Ricoeur believed that the object of responsibility was the fragile, the perishable that requires our care, because, in some sense, the fragile is entrusted to our guard, it is given to our care.16 So there you have it. In the director/subject relationship, the subject is always the weak part. Responsibility ensues.

And that is why, for me, what lies at the centre of documentary is not a problem of epistemology, or of aesthetics, or of grammar, but of ethics. What do you do with the power you have in relation to your character? When you’re filming actual people, this is central. This is the main reason why someone like Krzysztof Kieślowski decided not to do documentaries anymore, as he explained in a famous piece he wrote about Dworzec (Station, 1980), a small, very unpretentious documentary that he was doing about the central train station in Warsaw. One night, when he went back to the studio at night, the police were waiting for him. They seized all the footage because that same night a murder occurred near the station. (A girl had killed and dismembered her mother and put the body parts in a suitcase. She placed the suitcase in a locker at the station, where it was found.) The police thought that Kieślowski might have accidentally filmed the murder suspect. Kieślowski writes that he did not want to be an informant for the police and that on that day he decided not to do documentaries anymore and instead move into fiction. He went on to say that, as a documentary filmmaker, he felt he couldn’t film life’s more profound experiences. For instance, he couldn’t film someone dying because he did not think this would be ethically defensible.17 So for me, that’s the central definition of what a documentary is: the kind of film where you have a responsibility towards your subject because your film can affect your subject, which is not a problem that you have with fiction. That’s where the difference for me lies.

Making films, including documentaries, is also a matter of means of production. Making films is expensive, and because it’s expensive, those who have access to the means of production are those with money. Most documentaries in Brazil are films about our country’s social divide, in which those who are on the side of privilege film the underprivileged. So what you get are a lot of middle-class kids – usually they’re young – who go to the favelas and do the films. At the time of Santiago these things were starting to nag me. I did those Griersonian films myself, with News From a Personal War being only one amongst many. When someone like me decides to film in a favela, or in a poor neighbourhood, we know that we’ll be able to shoot because the history of Brazil is the history of poor people having to say yes to those who hold power, to those who belong to the ruling class, who are usually white men.

So you go there, with the best of intentions. You want to do a film about the horrors of public health or violence in Brazil. What you don’t realise, but you should, is that you are doing this not only because of your generous moral framework but also because the power structure in Brazil allows you to do this. Now put yourself in the opposite situation. You’re there comfortably reading Spinoza or Kant on ethics in your house in a very nice neighbourhood in Rio, and somebody rings the bell. You open the door and have three black kids from the favela with a camera saying, well, we want to know how you guys from the middle class live, we want your permission to spend a month in your building filming your life. You would not allow that film to be made.

This poses a problem. Should you be doing the other kind of film if you’re not allowing the reverse one, if there’s no reciprocity? I don’t have a good answer for that, and I don’t want to establish rules for others. I can only answer for myself. And so from Santiago on I decided to turn the camera onto my own social environment and my own social class, which is not common in Brazilian cinema because our elites are very protective of their own realm: they don’t open the doors. Politically, it is important to clarify that whereas I’m not at the point of letting people film me, or film my house, I am willing to do it myself. That’s a step forward, I think, because I’m exposing my own privilege and showing you how it is.

Having said that, let me agree with what I sense you think about the film. If I understand well what you were trying to say in a very generous and delicate way, I also have problems with Santiago. Yes, Santiago was very important to me because it became an important film in Brazilian cinematography. It is very influential. A lot of people in Brazil and in South America – usually people from the middle class – began making films about their own lives, filming their own privilege, and so it’s a film that opened doors and that has its importance. But today it’s a film that makes me cringe. It’s not a film I like to watch or screen because I think it’s impossible to resolve the paradox of Santiago. If I screen the film, I have to say, look how I treated Santiago. I have to expose my own flaws. In fact, I do that. Yet at the exact same time I do that, I become a shameful narcissist disguised as a brave penitent, making amends in public via a very public act of contrition. Acts of contrition should only exist when they’re done privately. They cannot be done publicly, because they become a kind of performance.


This is another thing that took me time to realise (at this point you must be thinking that I’m really slow…). When I made the film, I thought I was being transparent about myself and that the only way to make the film was to put everything on the table, i.e., up there on the screen. But looking back now, I think the film is very ambiguous because it does two almost contradictory things at the same time. On the one hand, it has this sincere wish to make amends and, in a sense, make Santiago great again, to use Trump’s words [laughs]. And we’re here in Lincoln, Nebraska discussing Santiago, so, in a sense, he exists. He has not been forgotten. If you think of Santiago, the man not the film, this is what he had done his whole life, breathing life into people he actually cared for by remembering them and by saying their names aloud: kings, dukes, princes, etc.18 He was like a Greek poet who conflated death with oblivion and life with remembrance, with memory, and, in a sense, the film performs that same task by not allowing Santiago to be forgotten. On his own terms, then, he is alive. If you go to Brazil, people who follow cinema know who Santiago is. They admire him, and Santiago is discussed in many places because of the film. That’s good for Santiago.

On the other hand, this gift of survival, this generous side to the film, is the result of an ungenerous act of self-aggrandisement by the director. It is important to note that one thing does not happen in spite of the other but because of it. If I had filmed Santiago with all the thoughtfulness of a Saint Francis steeped in Kantian ethics, Santiago would probably not have as strong a presence as he does in the film that bears his name. One might therefore say that there’s something perverse in the mechanism of the film. By exposing the class structure that pervades the film I kind of exempt myself – I mean my contemporary self, not the person I was some 15 odd years ago – from class itself: I transcend it by exposing it, and this is not true, since I’m still a member of my class.

It’s a very difficult film for me, but it leads to In the Intense Now for several reasons. The main one is directly related to Santiago – the person, not the film. He got all the bad cards in the deck: from his point of view, he was born in the wrong century, in the wrong part of the world (he didn’t like South America and wanted to be a European), in the wrong social class (his bourgeois tastes didn’t fit his surroundings – he didn’t like soccer; he liked opera, and it’s hard to like opera when you live in a small hamlet in the province of Santa Fe), with the “wrong” sexuality (he was homosexual – can you imagine being gay in 1920s rural Argentina?).


And so, although he had all the reasons to feel cheated by life, he was able, through sheer strength of imagination, to build a world in which life was not only possible but also pleasant, joyful and fulfilling. It was a pure act of imagination. And when I think about my mother: the complete opposite. She seemingly had been dealt all the right cards, and yet, as time went by, she lost the ability to find meaning in life. To go on existing became too painful for her, and so she decided to exit on her own terms. She committed suicide.

João Moreira Salles’ mother in In the Intense Now

This problem of finding meaning is central to In the Intense Now. Thinking about this dichotomy was what led me to do In the Intense Now. On the one hand, there is Santiago, with everything against him, being able to have a life that enabled him to say, “Well, it was worthwhile. I did something here. I kept my dead alive. I made those lists. I kept them near me, and in word, in deed, they are here. They populate my world, my small apartment, and I give them life.” And that was enough for him. It’s a beautiful idea. It’s almost like Homer reciting the name of dead soldiers to keep them present, alive. On the other hand you have my mother, who was unable to transcend her depression. One must acknowledge that there was a physiological imbalance underlying her sadness, a sickness. So yes, of course there’s a medical explanation for her pain, but there’s also an existential one: the impossibility of facing the end of beauty and the end of being young, as well as the sorrow that followed her separation from my father. They had a very passionate relationship, and when they drifted apart she never recovered. She was unable to find solid ground, to keep on going, and I don’t blame her at all for committing suicide. I think it was an act of supreme courage, not least since she was very Catholic and really believed that taking your own life was a sin from which there is no redemption; and yet, for her it was so painful to be alive that she decided that it was worth risking eternal damnation in order to end the pain.

As In the Intense Now unfolds, death increasingly becomes a major element as you foreground the deaths of a number of protagonists in various countries – deaths of students, predominantly, whether of the one in Brazil or those in France, and then there’s also the police funeral. As the film moves into its second half, it moves away from the moment of possible revolution, the sense that the revolution is perhaps imminent, and instead we are confronted with the feeling that the moment of possibility had already passed, just a few weeks, months at most, after the heyday of ’68. You show how there is an entire generation, so well encapsulated by how you use the scene from Romain Goupil’s Mourir à 30 ans (To Die at 30, 1982), that, by the mid-’70s, late-’70s, was overwhelmed by a sense of mourning, by the feeling that this is not how things were supposed to work out. The role your mother – and her footage – plays in the film seems closely related to the larger story. While the film doesn’t narrate your mother’s death, you state that the images you found of her on film became fewer and fewer as the decades progress from the 1960s to the 1980s. This descriptive statement conveys a sentiment of loss and also speaks volumes about your mother and how her awareness of herself must’ve changed. When one puts one’s self in a lot of amateur footage and is happy to do so, this perhaps tells you something about the person in the same way that the subsequent refusal to do so, the apparent lack of interest to be filmed, does.

And yet, the film ends on what is to me almost the most beautiful image of the whole film, namely the image of the moment when these young students in Paris are just “in the zone”, as it were: they’re working, they’re collaborating, they’re on the phone, they’re having fun. Their eyes are alight with something, and that’s the last image from the “long ’68” (which is followed by the clip from Louis Lumière’s La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon [Workers Leaving the Factory, 1895]). This penultimate image is the second time you show it. It’s an interesting structural unfolding that I hadn’t quite connected to your mother because I did not know that your mother had committed suicide.

In any case, it took you ten years, roughly speaking, to make the film, and during that time you didn’t make another film.

I didn’t. I produced a lot of films directed by Coutinho, but I didn’t make any film myself.

In the Intense Now, in a sense, is also a film about a person – your mother – but it works quite differently to your trilogy of sorts about men, for in those films you worked with living subjects: you interviewed and worked with people. In the Intense Now is more like a research project. You obviously spent a lot of time in the archive, as one can see from the end credits. The film does not use any footage you shot yourself. So in a way it’s a film about editing. It’s not even a documentary film; it’s an essay film that explicitly thematises the notion that we don’t even know or see what we are filming when we are filming it, which in turn raises the question of when one becomes able to see. So why did you get interested in making this film, other than that you discovered the footage of your mother in Beijing in 1966, which I take it was the initial impetus?

Let me start by saying that while I was putting the film together, Chris Marker (1921–2012), who looms large in my film, died. And then Harun Farocki (1944–2014) died. Farocki’s Videogramme einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution, 1992) really impressed me when I saw it for the first time. And then Coutinho died. He died a very tragic death. His son, who had mental issues, got hold of a knife and, obeying an inner voice that told him his father should be released from the burden of this world, did what he thought was his duty. Coutinho was my closest friend. He had already filmed his last documentary, Últimas Conversas (Last Conversations, 2015), which I produced, but he didn’t have time to enter the editing room. This was in 2014. So I stopped editing In the Intense Now and spent six months finishing his film. So while my film is not about death, this whole series of events – Marker’s, Farocki’s, and Coutinho’s deaths, finishing Last Conversations – kind of hovers over In the Intense Now.

That being said, the film started in a very different way. My mother was central to the whole thing. I tend to think that Santiago was about my father because Santiago worked for him and spent a good part of his life in the house my father built. So Santiago is about the father, and In the Intense Now is about the mother. I had a close relationship with my father; and I had had a close relationship with my mother, but we drifted apart in a very mysterious but also extreme way. At the end, we were barely speaking to each other. It was very difficult to relate to her, although she was very sick, and I was the only son in Rio (where she was). I was the one who took care of her, which was a very difficult thing to do because our relationship was fraught. And then she took her own life in 1988. I did not discover the images of the China trip until 2005 or 2006. They stuck in my mind because of the sheer happiness and joy she experienced in being there in China, in a place that was her complete opposite. I kept wondering why you lose that ability, and how? I wanted to understand that, to understand the path she took, and by doing so, to prevent myself from repeating it – from losing interest in life, be it in my wife, my son, and my dogs, or in film, books, and journalism.

So, the first idea was to make a film only with the images of China, and the film would be structured by three fictional letters. The first one, a letter written by my mother to the kid I was in ’66, explaining why she was there and what she was feeling while being there. The second letter would have been my letter to her – a letter I’m writing now addressing her then, trying to understand what had happened between us. And the third letter would have been written in Chinese by a random Red Guard I would pick up in the footage, explaining how he or she saw that very strange group of Westerners, who were there at a point in time when they really shouldn’t have, since it was during the Cultural Revolution. You would see the same images over and over again, structured by those three different letters.

I started to write the letters and to think about the structure, and I kept coming back to happiness versus absence of happiness, joy versus absence of joy; and for some reason, I decided that the right connection wouldn’t be through letters that don’t exist but through letters that do exist, written by people who went to China during the same period as my mother, and who wrote about their experiences there. And very quickly I came to Robert Linhart, a young French Maoist who went to China in ’67 and wrote a letter to his wife telling her he had arrived in what can only be described as paradise on earth. (It’s a very beautiful letter; it was included in one of the earliest cuts of the film, but I removed it later.) In it he says: “My love, yesterday we visited a commune. I was waiting for this since 1964, and it is as wonderful as we thought. It is the luminous path that will be taken by all the hungry of this world, by the peasants who now dwell in the realm of darkness and storms.”19

In the Intense Now

It sounds naïve now when you know what was going on in China at the time, and yet it is still generous and touching. It immediately connected to ’68, because Linhart was a student of Althusser. He was there in the first week of May. Like most Maoists, he decided not to take part in the events because he had reason to think that most students were just kids playing at being revolutionaries (some were, some weren’t); he thought that true revolution could only be achieved by workers and that, therefore, the task of revolutionary students was to go into factories and become workers themselves – a choice Linhart himself made later on.

I stumbled into ’68 because of Linhart, because of China, and because of the Cultural Revolution. I started to read about ’68 and discovered that it was the same kind of dynamic of engagement, enchantment, being in the now, and losing it afterwards that I saw in my mother’s journey. The motivations were radically different – my mother was not moved by politics – but the existential arc was very similar. In the Intense Now became the film it is because of that. When I went into the editing room, these were the themes that interested me. I wanted to tackle those questions. How does one become a militant? How does one cease to be one? That is not something you see very often in cinema, since you usually have films about people who engage but not about people who disengage. I didn’t know much more than that – these very vague ideas – so I had no notion of how the film would be structured. I didn’t know what the first or last scene would be or what would come in the middle. I knew about sequences. For example, I knew I wanted to do a sequence on how people die and become martyrs: people who die as symbols, people who die as individuals; corpses that are used politically.

So sequences were made, always with the image coming first. Once I had the sequence edited, I would write the text in the editing room. I recorded on an iPhone, very amateurish. I put the sound on the sequence. If it worked, okay. If it didn’t, I would change some words. Text adapted itself to the image, never the other way around. And then it became a card with a title, such as “Funerals of ’68”, and it went to a board and stayed there for a year or two. It stayed there suspended in time, without a before or an after; it was not part of a narrative; it didn’t have a past or a future. I kept doing all these different sequences: on how ’68 became commercialised very quickly, on the night of the barricades, on the day the tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, etc. They all went on the board.

Slowly, the film would start to take shape. This is how I see the film: you work, and because you work, you sweat, and the film is the sweat. The film is a secretion of the work you do. It doesn’t come before the work; it is the result of the work. It is what naturally flows from the act of trying to make a film. At some point, after doing at least 40, 50 sequences on the board, which I looked at every single day, sequences started to establish connections, building on each other, clustering. I tried to respect the clusters. It’s not an idea that becomes a thing. It’s things that become an idea. It’s very empirical, in a sense. It’s very materialist. The thing itself releases a ghost, and the ghost is the film.

So when you watch the film now, you have sentences that were written in 2013 next to sentences that were written in 2016. Of course, at the end, I went into a studio and recorded the whole thing in one go, but it was never written at once. Ideas become clear. They come into focus. They are shaped by the work of trying to have ideas. That’s how it works.

The editing process of In the Intense Now was very similar to the one in Santiago. Both films were born in the editing room. And on both of them there were three of us working in the editing room – Eduardo Escorel, myself, and a much younger person. In the case of In the Intense Now, Laís Lifschitz had just come out of film school. She was about 21 or 22. It was her first major editing job, and I ended up working with her for about two years, looking at the material, understanding it, arranging and rearranging it, and making about five different films: one about May, one about Prague, one about joy, one about death, and one about militant cinema, a theme that ultimately disappears from the film. Together, these five films were about five and a half hours long. I sent them to Escorel. He worked on major films by Glauber Rocha and Coutinho; all the great Brazilian filmmakers worked with him. I asked him, “Is there anything there? Do you think we can make a film out of this?” He watched them, and he sent me a long email saying, “I think there’s something there, but it needs work.” I said, “Would you like to join me in editing the film?,” and he came, and the three of us – Escorel, Laís, and I –worked for another year and a half.

The fact that you had three different generations in the editing room was interesting. We could gauge through Laís what was or was not understandable for someone of her generation, what you had to explain and what you could infer was common knowledge. And, of course, explanation is almost death – because explanation is information, and information crowds out experience, which for me is the essence of documentary. It was very important to have a person saying, “This doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Now, with Escorel, it was important to be precise about the period. Whenever I’d say something about what was going through the minds of those who were young and politically engaged in 1968, I looked at Escorel, and he was that person; he was able to say, “Uh-uh, you can’t say that.” Apart from the editing itself, which of course is Escorel’s and Laís’ most important contribution to the film, the fact that I had both a completely innocent gaze and a historical gaze looking at the same material helped me understand what kinds of images worked and which ones didn’t.

As far as the editing itself is concerned, we made a crucial decision about how we would use the archival material – the footage from the time period. It’s something the three of us see when looking at the film, but it’s probably not apparent to viewers. Because we were dealing with visual texts that are the result of deliberation and work, we felt that we should respect their integrity, the way they had originally been put together. We therefore decided not to edit the films we used for In the Intense Now. The cuts you see in any given sequence are the original ones. It’s the editing of the actual film. When we do interfere we insert one second of black screen. That black screen serves as a visual cue: it separates the original editing from a new clip, the integrity of which will also be respected. We did not plunder the archive for individual images only to splice them together into new sequences that didn’t exist previously. We did not consider the 100-odd hours of archival material we worked with as a collection of random images from which we could pick and choose.

As for the face of the girl at the end, she comes after a whole sequence of deaths. You have the violent deaths resulting from clashes between protesters and security forces; you have the suicide of Killian Fritch, who coined the famous slogan, “Under the paving-stones, the beach”;20 and then you have a transition to my mother. In my mind, at that point she’s no longer the mother we saw in the China footage. She’s no longer alive. After a long hiatus in the film, she returns at the end of the sequence of those who have died. She now shares their fate. She is dead. That’s the moment in the film when she dies. But should I end the film with the stark fact of her death or with the memory of her happiness? I chose the latter. The film ends with the mother who went to China, the person on the side of life. At that moment, something new was showing through her. She was experiencing something new. She was experiencing the full intensity of life.

So the second to last image of the film, the girl on the telephone, encapsulates this idea of In the Intense Now – this realm of limitless possibility, of something new, unforeseen, that is here with us now. History’s not given. We don’t know where it goes, but it can go anywhere. We have the agency. We are the masters of our destiny, an idea encapsulated in that image, and I wanted to end with that. Then Escorel said, “Let’s end with the Lumière scene,” which became the film’s last sequence. It also expresses the same idea, with the added benefit of being the complete opposite of the sequence that’s smack in the middle of the film, the sequence that best expresses the end of May and the beginning of the sadness: La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory, Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques Student Collective, 1968), in which Jocelyn, who does not want to go back to work, is being prodded into doing so. The Lumière clip shows the opposite. Workers are leaving the factory. When the doors of the factory open, they go to their families, to their friends. They go for a drink or for music. They go towards life, not towards repetitive and gruesome work – Simone Weil used to say, “Work that has no hope of eternity” – which is what Jocelyn has been pushed back into in that scene in the middle of the film.

The Lumière factory scene opens up possibilities and puts you in contact with what is worth living for. At the same time, of course, it’s the first image – it’s an image that inaugurates cinema and the possibility of cinema. Of course, since In the Intense Now is a film made with films, it would not exist without people who took their cameras, went out into the streets, and filmed. So the Lumière factory at the end of the film does double duty: it points towards life, and it honours cinema, without which In the Intense Now could not exist. These were my reasons for using Lumière.

In the Intense Now

But as I state in the beginning of the film, quoting Chris Marker, one never knows exactly what we’re filming. I could add: the same applies for the editing choices we make. As I screened the film in Princeton, a friend of mine, Thomas Y. Levin, a professor of Media Studies in the German Department, pointed out the obvious: the Lumière Brothers owned the factory. They are the ones determining when the doors open. The image that for me represented freedom and life suddenly became much more complicated. Tom suggests that this shot can be seen as the first CCTV sequence in the history of media. Things are not always what they seem.

It’s a film made exclusively with other films; it’s also a film investigating those other films quite intensely, whether it’s the early moment in Brazil where we are made to notice class relations in Brazil, whether the moment when we are led to perceive the marginalisation of black people in Paris, or whether it’s the sequence in Prague where we end up noticing what the essential difference is between two rolls of film that witnesses of the Soviet invasion and its aftermath shot. So you have that very intense investigation of the cinema: not just an intense working with the cinema in terms of having to find, watch, and then edit together a large number of films but also in terms of trying to tease something out of these images that a non-intensive mode of seeing wouldn’t necessarily notice either, especially since these intense moments normally appear in a sequence that moves at the normal speed of 24 frames per second.

Charles de Gaulle, In the Intense Now

 There are also all these moments that struck me as moments of intensity. There’s, for instance, the television footage of Charles DeGaulle’s astonishing New Year’s speech on 31 December 1967. It’s almost cartoonish because of the way he speaks. He’s a big, old man, but he’s also really into it, at that moment; he’s in the moment, it seems to me, though later on you point out that he wasn’t in the moment, given he misread the overall situation. And when he uses TV again to handle the protests – that failed. And it failed because he was not in the moment. He did not connect with the moment people remembered – his famous radio addresses during World War II. But then, when he went back on the radio – that’s when he succeeded, because it reminded people of the famous voice they knew from radio broadcasts during WW II. And then there is the footage of the woman at the Wonder factory, which to me is truly one of the astonishing documents from the time period: she too is intensely in the moment, but tragically so.

Tragically so. I never thought of that, but you’re absolutely right.

The film really puts an archive together of such intense moments – there’s the famous shot of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, of course, when he grins at the policeman or when he’s debating these French authorities on television in ways that no young people had ever done before. But then he loses the intensity and sells out.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit debating the French establishment, In the Intense Now

By becoming a caricature. He was caught in the trap laid by fame. He himself realised that and wrote about it critically and courageously just a few years after the May events, when he was still very young. I admire him for that.

And then, of course, there is the entire narrative around your mother that leads to her own astounding articulation of intensity: that what she’s after is the “shock of the unlooked-for encounter.” This is the moment of intensity: you don’t look for it, but then there it is.

And she goes on to say that what follows this shock is the “ineffable emotion of the unexpected form.”

Yes. This is clearly a deeply personally-felt notion on her part: the unlooked-for encounter, which is when something fundamentally changes because it’s like a rupture, and then there’s the unexpected form, something that one hadn’t thought of, or seen, or put together. And then this connects to an earlier moment in the film when you quote the journalist who said that, “May changed everything.” So: the intensity of that moment changed everything. Now, I think it’s an open question whether it did or not, and I’m not sure that your film is trying to answer that question to begin with. But, how did May ’68 change everything?

That’s the six-million-dollar question.

It’s not the job of a film to answer that question, it seems to me, but I think one of the reasons that I was struck by In the Intense Now is precisely that it poses this question – which isn’t a new one in and of itself – in ways that I hadn’t seen before. There is something about the film organised in terms of what we actually see that comes out of the sweat, so to speak. It has these moments – from very different political directions: DeGaulle, Cohn-Bendit, and then the private ones: sometimes they’re narrated as moments of intensity, because you’re quoting your mother, but often they are not. They’re just sort of there. And often they are there because of how you juxtapose moments. Even the tragedy of the woman at the Wonder Factory: it’s oddly beautiful because there’s pure resistance in her image. She’s not having it. “I’m not going back to the factory,” she insists, desperately, with conviction, as if her life depended on this, as she’s surrounded by these party functionaries – unionists. She’s all alone, other than the student who has already been marginalised and no one wants to listen to anymore. But the way she speaks…

It’s amazing.

It’s amazing. So, there are three women embodying pure intensity: her, your mother, and then the female student.

Someone said the same thing, maybe in Brazil, and it struck me as something that I had never thought of, and it’s true. There’s her, there’s my mother, and there’s the girl, and they represent different facets of May, and in some strange sense they give you the complete picture of May. I don’t know exactly how. I have to think about that. Certainly the girl on the phone represents what is most generous about that period and about that generation. She’s talking to the concerned mother of one of her fellow students and reassures her that he’s all right. The mother is the generational enemy who represents the bourgeoisie, and yet there’s empathy. The girl understands why this mother should be paid attention to. That moment in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) when Willy Loman says, “Attention must be paid!”: the girl is doing that. A revolution led by people like that is a revolution I would join.

And then there’s the worker. She’s there because she realises that what was promised to her will not happen. She thought that life could actually be lived in a different way. She actually thought that what was being proposed during those three weeks was a possibility, and at that moment she realises it was an illusion. She precedes Killian Fritsch who jumped in front of the train at Gaité metro station.21 She precedes Récanati. She’s the first to realise that it has come to an end. It’s the tragedy of defeat. So, in that sense, I understand Gilles Deleuze, but it depends on the perspective.22

The question to pose then would be: to what extent does the memory of the intensity that the film renders sensible carry force?

I would love for the answer to be that it does – but without falling into the trap of trying to relive what is now in the past.

No nostalgia!

No nostalgia! Nostalgia is death, and that’s why they all died – because they couldn’t escape it.

Which is also an intensity, of course. Their experience of intensity was so intense that there wasn’t a line of flight available to them. They couldn’t deterritorialise, as Deleuze might’ve put it. The moment of intensity captured them so much: it closed in on them, so to speak, suffocating them.

And that’s why when the film was shown in different places in the world, the response was usually informed by the respective experiences of these audiences – usually progressive, usually young – in relation to their own political situations. And because the film came out in 2017, all the different “Spring movements” – in Madrid, in the United States, in Tel Aviv, in Argentina, and in Brazil – were in the moment of Jocelyn, the moment of the worker being forced to go back to the factory. All the discussions were about how not to despair, how not to be nostalgic, but, at the same time, about how to take the memory of that intensity and turn it into a propulsive force in order to move forward, knowing, as Cohn-Bendit says to Sartre, that “If it happened once, it can happen again.” And that’s the only thing you need to know.


  1. See Daniel J. Sherman, Ruud van Dijk, Jasmine Alinder, and A. Aneesh, The Long 1968: Revisions and New Perspectives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); and Christina Gerhardt and Marco Abel, Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures of the Long 1968 (Rochester: Camden House, 2019).
  2. See https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br and https://ims.com.br/en. Unlike practically all Brazilian cultural institutions, the Instituto Moreira Salles does not use scarce public resources derived from laws to encourage culture. With important holdings in photography, music, literature, and iconography, the IMS pursues a progressive, interventionist political strategy and through collaborations with universities and other museums aims to foster research about and knowledge of Brazilian culture. See Paulo Werneck, “Instituto Moreira Salles, uma janela indiscrete em São Paulo,” ípsilon, 30 December 2017, https://www.publico.pt/2017/12/30/culturaipsilon/noticia/janela-indiscreta-1797563.
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 145.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, edited by David Lapoujade, translated by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), p. 234.
  5. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia (New York: The New Press, 1995).
  6. The City of God DVD includes News from a Personal War as an extra. The latter clearly serves as the blueprint for former.
  7. Márcio Amaro de Oliveira. 1970-2003.
  8. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskow,” in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations (New York: Schockn Books, 1968): pp.83-110.
  9. Nelson Freire, born 18th October, 1944, has long been considered a connoisseur’s pianist and is today widely regarded as one of his era’s great musicians.
  10. See, for example, the Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database DVD (2005).
  11. Lula was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011.
  12. The film was supposed to consist of three parts set in Latin and South America. Much of the footage he shot for the “Carnaval” (also known as “The Story of Samba”) segment was later dumped into the Pacific Ocean.
  13. This line is, of course, from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).
  14. Lech Wałęsa was the Polish labour leader who co-founded Solidarność in 1980, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995. In Entreatos, however, Lula, has little positive to say about the darling of the Western political classes. Sitting with his aides in his campaign airplane, he tells them: “Do you know what the problem was with Wałęsa? Wałęsa came to power, he was a sell-out, yellow. […
  15. Both directors were interviewed on stage as part of the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival “Berlinale Talents” session, “Past Progressive; Living Archives of the Revolution.” The conversation with Salles and Veiel can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRKw9vlLKes. Salles was at the festival to attend the premiere of No Intenso Agora, and Veiel, who had his biopic Beuys (2017) in the festival’s main Competition, had screened at previous iterations of the festival a number of films dealing with the history of the German left-wing terrorist organisation, the Red Army Faction, which emerged out of the days of the student revolt in Germany in 1967/68. For more on the RAF in German cinema, see Marco Abel, “Dissent and Its Discontents: Five Decades of RAF in German Film and Television at the moving history film festival (Potsdam, Germany, 20-24 September, 2017),” Senses of Cinema 85 (December 2017): http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/moving-history-film-festival/#fnref-32960-11.
  16. “Onde há poder, há fragilidade. E onde há fragilidade, há responsabilidade. Quanto a mim, tenderia mesmo a dizer que o objeto da responsabilidade é o frágil, o perecível que nos requer, porque o frágil está, de algum modo, confiado a nossa guarda, entregue ao nosso cuidado.” Paul Ricœur, “O poder e a fragilidade” (“Power and Fragility”), in O único e o singular (UNESP/UEPA, 2002), p.45. Original title: L’unique et le singulier (Brussels: Alice editions, 1999).
  17. Kieślowski writes: “But what did I realize at that moment? That, like it or not, independently of my intentions or will, I found myself in the situation of an informer or someone who gives information to the police – which I had never wanted to do. (…) I’d have become a police collaborator. And that was the moment when I realized that I didn’t want to make any more documentaries (…). Not everything can be described. That’s the documentary’s great problem. (…) If I’m making a film about death, I can’t film someone who’s dying because it’s such an intimate experience that the person shouldn’t be disturbed. And I noticed, when making documentaries, that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more the subjects which interested me shut themselves off.” Quoted in Kieślowski on Kieślowski, Danusia Stok, ed. (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 81-86.
  18. Santiago, who worked for thirty years as the Salles’ family butler, was 80 years old when Salles interviewed him in 1992. His life’s work consisted of 30,000 pages “of notes transcribed from public and private libraries spread across three continents in the original languages: English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In 1992,” so Salles’ narration informs us, “I was not interested in discovering what those pages contained. And yet,” he continues as we are seeing Santiago sitting on a chair by a shelf with his labour of love neatly stacked, “for more than half a century, Santiago had written the history of the great men. No duke was too obscure, no dynasty left unturned.” After providing us with examples of the various histories Santiago transcribed – e.g., “the Hohenstaufen nobility: 46 pages in 29 years, the nobles of India, 225 pages in 30 years” – the narrator remarks that Santiago’s “labour was not merely mechanical. As he took notes, he jotted down observations. He had loves and hates.” Or, as Santiago himself puts it: “More than thirty years collecting these pages. More than thirty thousand pages of the universal aristocracy. Nearly six thousand years of aristocracy, beginning with the first Ur dynasties… So I took notes. The history of the Popes, for example. If someone wants to know when a Pope lived, his deeds, I have it all here in alphabetical order. I put part of my life into them, my feelings, as I took notes, I transported myself. (…) They’re dead, but not for me. Because I talk with them all the time. Especially on the weekends, I air them, put them out in the sun for some fresh air. So I talk to them. In spite of all the tongues, all the dead languages, they understand me. I adore them because for so many years I wrote, I carry them inside of me.”
  19. “Mon chaton, hier … nous avons visité une commune populaire; j’attendais cela depuis 1964; c’est aussi bien que nous l’imaginions. C’est la voie lumineuse que prendront tous les affamés du monde, tous les paysans de la zone des ténèbres et des tempêtes.” Virginie Linhart, Le jour où mon père s’est tu (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2008), p.35.
  20. In his voiceover commentary, Salles first describes Fritsch as “a student with a lyrical soul” who came upon the slogan by happenstance. Then, however, he proceeds to offer a second story about Fritsch. We learn that he was a 28 year-old advertising agency owner whose employees were “looking for a slogan that could mobilize their comrades” and eventually came up with the most iconic slogan of the era: “So the phrase that came to represent the libertarian lyricism of May was born from the brainstorming of two admen working at an agency with an Americanised name: the Internote Service. Everything is not as it seems.”
  21. The film points out the irony of Fritsch jumping in front of a train at this subway station, given that in French gaité means joy.
  22. Salles is referring to a short essay in which Deleuze argues against the notion that May ’68 has failed. Gilles Deleuze, “May ’68 Did Not Take Place,” in David Lapoujade (ed.), Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, trans. (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), p. 233-36.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His third monograph, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der “Neuen Münchner Gruppe” (1964 – 1972), is forthcoming in September 2024 with transcript Verlag (Germany). He is also the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). He is the co-editor of several books, including, with Jaimey Fisher, of the forthcoming New German Cinema and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, January 2025) as well as The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, 2018). Other books he co-edited include, with Aylin Bademosy and Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2023); with Christian Gerhardt Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019); and with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel, and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010). With Roland Végső, he is the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press).Marco Abel has also published numerous essays on German cinema and interviews with German film directors in several edited volumes as well as journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema. Together with Jaimey Fisher, he also co-edited a dossier on Christian Petzold for Senses of Cinema (issue 84).

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