“Thirteen years ago, when I shot these images, I thought the film would begin like this…” This is the first line of narration in João Moreira Salles’ Santiago. I immediately knew that this was a film not simply about Santiago–the filmmaker’s family’s butler––but about failure, about seeing and about documentary filmmaking. Fiction is hard-pressed to write characters as rich and strange as Santiago, the family butler who dreams of being a French aristocrat from another century and speaks in a mélange of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. A seemingly obsessive-compulsive character, who typed and compiled over 30,000 pages of the history of the world’s aristocracy and played the maracas to Vivaldi, was meant to be the subject of Salles’ documentary. In 1992, the filmmaker shot nine hours of footage, but aborted the project on the cutting room table.
The burning question that captivated me was: Why did Salles return to the footage 13 years later? Was it just nostalgia for his family home that is now abandoned, and the childhood he left behind? Was it the death of Santiago? The answer is not so obvious. We see an outtake of Salles sitting next to Santiago, and we hear, “For the next five days, I would be a documentarian and he my character…or at least, so it seemed to me at that time…” In this narration, Salles reveals that he believed that for five days, Santiago would no longer be the family butler and Salles would no longer be the owners’ son. He believed that the camera would eliminate their class difference and that he could make an objective character portrait that revealed the essence of who Santiago was, while the filmmaker would remain the invisible, objective documentarian. The beauty of Salles’ film lies in the gesture of his returning to the footage to see what he could not see then and understand the nature of his own failure.
When Salles returns to the footage 13 years later, he does not return to finish the film he never completed, but to make a different film—a film that looks at his own blindness, how his desire to make a film obstructed his ability to see and how his own class privilege stood between him and his “character.” It is only by looking at the unwanted clips that would have ended up on the cutting room floor that Salles is able to see this deeper “truth”: The four takes of Santiago reciting a poem, the cinematographer shouting instructions to her subject from behind the lens, the camera being turned off just when Santiago is about to say something that at the time seemed unimportant. It is by looking at the outtakes of the original footage that Salles deconstructs the myths of documentary filmmaking and makes a film that is as much about him as it is about Santiago. I think the greatest misconception about documentary is that it is a genre of truth, as opposed to fiction, which is a genre of lies. One is the work of an observer who gathers facts, the other of a creator who fabricates fantasies. Salles’ film reminds us that the camera is a two-sided mirror that reveals at once its subject in front of the lens and the person behind the lens. As Roland Barthes wrote, “Cameras are clocks for seeing.”