Interview with Wim Wenders

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Wim Wenders is undoubtedly one of the most important directors in the world. A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to attend at the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival his new documentary, «The Salt of the Earth». A wonderful creation that uniquely describe the life and work of iconic Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. The interview was conducted on behalf of and as it was in English, I thought it would be a very good opportunity for the first English-language text on my blog. This is a very interesting interview with the central axis around the Wim Wenders’ new documentary and with references to the memories of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the meeting with Theo Angelopoulos and οf course, his new film «Every Thing Will Be Fine», the Berlinale, the Oscars and the composer Alexandre Desplat. (Read the greek version of the interview, at TVXS)

– In your new documentary «The Salt of the Earth», you present the work of the legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado, together with his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. When did this idea begins and how the project developed?

WW: : I met Sebastiao Salgado in 2009, finally. I had known and loved his work for a long time already, but had never encountered the man himself. So that was overdue, I figured. After all, the man was alive and well and working. So one day, through the connection of an Italian friend, we met in his Paris office. Strangely enough, he just lived around the corner of the apartment where I had lived for years in Paris. I could have run into him at the local bakery already…
We got along well, and met again, and Sebastiao showed me some of his new work (He was still in the middle of «Genesis» and far from being finished with it). He asked me for my advice, if I could imagine that these images could also be shown outside of the context of books and exhibitions, on a movie screen. I was hesitant to answer, but finally told him the truth: that I was afraid they’d become like a slide show, even if they were accompanied by music or sounds. But I kept thinking about it, and the next time we met, I corrected myself and said that if these photos would be protected by his own voice and his own stories, that could make the necessary difference. By then, he had already told me a few things about these pictures and how he had encountered the people in them, so I knew what a great storyteller he was.

I also met Juliano, his son, and found out that the two of them had embarked on an adventure together, and that Juliano had followed his father on a couple of his shoots for «Genesis» and was planning to accompany him on other trips. Anyway, one thing lead to another, and finally the three of us discussed in all openness the possibility of doing a film together, in which Juliano and I would have very different tasks and very different access to Sebastiao. I would mostly concentrate on talking with him about his career, and of going through his photographic oeuvre with him. Little did I know that this was not going to be a matter of a few weeks, and little did I know that I was going to discover a whole different life of the Salgados…
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– The beautiful photos of Salgado magically alive on the big screen. But they are particularly interesting that you chose to participate and as a character – narrator, asking Sebastião to reveal the shocking stories behind his shots. What was the criteria for the selected pictures and if your appearance was something that you had planned from the beginning?

WW: When we started the shoot, I must admit, I didn’t have much of a concept. I first needed to get the know Salgado’s work better and I had to get a feeling for all the stories he could tell me about all these photographic journeys. From our first encounters I already knew: he was a great storyteller! So we sat down together and we did conventional interviews, with two cameras, one on him and one on me. We slowly went through his entire work, for days, for weeks, mostly sitting together at a desk, going through his books or through stacks of photographs, either in his office, or in his studio, and even in his kitchen. I was always included in the shots, so that I asked him questions and he would always be talking to me. That had one drawback: First of all, I would appear in the film (which I more and more felt was superfluous) and second of all: There was a certain formal atmosphere about his stories. When he got involved in his images and looked at them and really «disappeared in them», he was great, and the stories amazing and authentic. But when he looked up and was aware of the two cameras and the microphones and me, this concentration and immersement sometimes vanished.

Somehow, I felt, I had to come up with another way of shooting, so he could tell all these stories in a more intimate way. Not to the camera, most of all, and not with all these people in his line of vision. And then I finally found the solution with the «dark room». That itself was the ideal surrounding for a man who had for a long time developed and printed his work himself. In that dark room Sebastiao saw nothing but his own photos. They were projected on a semi-transparent mirror that we placed in front of the camera, very much like a conventional teleprompter, only that we had entirely changed its function. It didn’t show a text to Sebastiao, but strictly his own photographic work. That set-up allowed Sebastiao to be all by himself with his past and his memories. And he didn’t have to speak up. He looked at his photos and let the memories come. The beauty of the process was that at the same time he was looking through that teleprompter right into the camera. Only that he didn’t see neither the camera nor me behind it. Being so alone with his work created the intimate atmosphere that you now feel in the film.

Again, we went through his entire photographic oeuvre, picture by picture, day by day, for a couple of weeks. This time, I sat behind the camera, invisible for Sebastiao, and I could direct the flow of images on my computer. Whenever I felt he had told the story of one photograph on the teleprompter, I could switch to the next one. Only this time I was more educated, as we had already done this once. We basically made the selection for this second passage together. It was very intense. He was really all alone with his photographs, and at the same time looking through the teleprompter at the audience, without seeing anything else, of course, than his own work. This was so emotional, that we often had to stop. The memories overwhelmed him, and me too, behind the camera. I don’t know if I ever went through two weeks of such concentrated, rigorous and exhausting shooting.
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– In 2011 we attended your 3D documentary about the great German choreographer Pina Bausch. While in «The Salt of the Earth» we watch the life and the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado. What is it that attracts you to create documentaries for other artists?

WW: My key impulse for wanting to do a documentary is a very simple one: I like something a lot, and I want to share it with as many people as possible. In The case of «Buena Vista Social Club» it was the music of these Cuban musicians, in «Notebook on Cities and Clothes» it was the work of the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, in «Pina» it was the fantastic beauty of Pina Bausch’s choreography, and in «The Salt of the Earth» it was the stunning photographs of Sebastiao Salgado. And you are right: Quite often, what I want to share, or the (good) virus I want to spread, is another artistic endeavor. Maybe because I feel that creativity is one of the last adventures left to explore on our planet. You see: I know my own creative procedure, and I know where it’s coming from. But what is the source of inspiration for a fashion designer? And how can a choreographer see so much beauty? And what enables a man like Sebastiao Salgado to travel around the world, and be a witness to so much human history? What drives him to share the lives of all these people? How is he able to look at so much need, and despair, and death, and disease, and cope with it? How come he has not turned into a cynic? Those are the questions that attract me to make documentaries on other artists.
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– With «The Salt of the Earth» you returned to the classic format, with alternating black and white film and color. How experienced the switch and what you think about the 3D technology?

WW: It seemed useless to make a film about a photographer in 3D. His entire work takes place on two-dimensional prints, in black-and-white photographs. No use to introduce a third dimension here. Only at the end of «The Salt of the Earth», when my camera joined Sebastiao at the Instituto Terra in this amazing forest, and when we explored how he and his wife Lelia became the first people to replant the Tropical Rain Forest, then I did miss my 3D cameras a little bit. They are great instruments to take people by the hand and show them through a forest. 3D is a fantastic medium to share an experience with others, as you can literally immerse the audience into another world. The feature film that I made at the same time as we were working on the film about Salgado, and that we shot entirely in Canada, «Every Thing Will Be Fine», was shot again in 3D. I love this new language, and I feel it’s a scandal how it is used (or rather abused) by the big studios strictly as an «attraction» or as a rollercoaster ride, and not as a fantastic new tool to tell stories.
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– The Sebastião Salgado, is a photographer who traveled to the four corners of the world, recording a continually changing humanity, from Kuwait to Rwanda. At one stage of his career however, it is understood that he turns the lens on human nature. Although the facts are not presented in chronological order, it was a challenge for the completion of the documentary?

WW: We had gone through his entire life as a social photographer, and so I knew that this work had come to a grinding halt in Rwanda, when Sebastiao Salgado became one of the first witnesses of the genocide happening there. He had worked in Rwanda for several decades, already as a young economist for the World Bank, so he knew the country really well and had friends there. And to then see all hell break lose, and to see these millions of deaths, it broke his heart. He really went to the «Heart of Darkness» there. As a social photographer, his ethos had always been his belief that his photography could possibly change things, or at least create an awareness. When he photographed in Rwanda, he realized his photography had become helpless. It wasn’t going to change anything anymore. SO he put his camera down and cried. And he never picked it up again, at least not as a social photographer. You have to admit: this man is radical, also against himself.

After Rwanda, he did not want to continue the work he had done for more than 30 years. So he gave it up. The fact that he learned to become a photographer again, a very different photographer, he owes that to his wife Lelia, and her efforts to boost his confidence again. She suggested to plant some trees on the farm that the Salgados had inherited from his father. This was a wasteland now, totally eroded, like so many areas in Brazil where farmers had cut down the tropical rain forest for grassland and for raising cows. Lelia suggested to plant a few thousand trees, more like a gesture, or as a memorial for Sebastiao’s father. And then the miracle happened and these trees started to grow and with them, the water sources came back to life! When the Salgados saw that, they realized this could be done on a bigger scale. So the planted two and a half million trees! And that had never been done before! And they saw it was possible to reverse the damage done to nature! And with that experience, Sebastiao started to photograph nature. It was really nature that cured him from his despair. And then he decided to do the opposite of his job as social photographer: if he had witnessed for years all the misery of this planet, he was now going to show all of its beauty, its untouched splendor. They called the new project GENESIS and traveled to remote places on the planet where Earth was still like when God created it, so to speak.

If I hadn’t known that Salgados «blues» had been cured, I don’t think I would have wanted to finish the film. I could never have ended it after Rwanda. That would have been too depressing! I was so relieved that we could end this film on a positive outlook! And, after all, Sebastiao is an optimist, or has always believed in the possibility of change.
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– In 2006 we had the pleasure to witness your presence, at a beautiful tribute to your work in the context of the 47th International Film Festival of Thessaloniki. In a few days, at the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (13-22 / 03) we will have the pleasure to watch at the Greek premiere, your documentary «The Salt of the Earth». What are your memories of Thessaloniki? Would you come again if you were calling and what your think of the new Greek cinema?

WW: Yes, I would love to come again to Thessaloniki. I have great memories from our stay there. I came with my wife, and we both enjoyed it a lot. I remember meeting Theo Angelopoulos there, and how generous he had been with us. Well, tragically, he is no longer with us. And I hope Greek cinema can be essential again in remounting the moral of the Greek people and help them in reaffirming that they are vital for our European identity.
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– Unlike the films of most directors, who are starting an event, your creations have their origin in a sense of a space and a place that you want to tell the story. How do you selecte each time your subject and what is it that inspires you? A good documentary is fiction elements and vice versa?

WW: I have stopped making such a difference between fictional and documentary work. A documentary can be a total fairy tale, like «Buena Vista Social Club» for instance, and an extreme fantasy like «Wings of Desire» (Der Himmel über Berlin) can turn into a documentary about a city that no longer exists. The sense of place helps me both in my fictional work as in my documentary. I need to feel connected to a place, otherwise I’m up in the air. The place is grounding me. When I like the place, I know where to put my camera. If I have the impression I could shoot just as well somewhere else, I start feeling lost. So I have to have a strong connection to the place to begin with. Ideally I know the place and can write the story for this place, in a way that the story can only happen here and nowhere else. The documentary is locked into a place to begin with. You follow somebody’s story, and that means you necessarily shoot in that person’s surrounding. «Pina» needed to be shot in Wuppertal, and «The Salt of the Earth» in Paris and Brazil.
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– Your documentary «The Salt of the Earth», held its world premiere last year in May at the 67th Cannes Film Festival as part of the «Un Certain Regard», where it won the Special Prize Award. At the same time a few days ago your documentary was present at the 87th ceremony of the Oscars. How do you experienced this whole journey of your project?

WW: In Cannes, I must admit, we were very nervous. We had just finished the sound mix and nobody had seen our film except the people who had worked on it. We had no idea how an audience would react to it. The film is certainly hard to take in between, and it’s very demanding emotionally. Even in the editing room I often had to turn off the monitor and walk away. And during the screening of the film in Cannes both Juliano and me, we felt that our film was too demanding and too extreme. And then it came as such a relief and also as a surprise that the audience gave us such a long standing ovation!

With the Oscars it was different. By then the film was playing in several countries already, and very successfully so, and we were very confident about it. Except that we also knew that in Hollywood and for the Oscars we did not stand much of a chance. After all, the Academy consists of mainly American members, and to them a subject like Edward Snowden was so much closer at heart than a Brazilian photographer. So we were not disappointed about not winning.
Wim Wenders - Berlinale
– The 65th International Berlin Film Festival (05-15 / 02) honored you with the Golden Bear for your total supply in the area of the Seventh Art. What does this mean for you? Alongside the Berlinale screened and your new three-dimensional creation, «Everything Will Be Fine». What this film is about and what are your future plans?

WW: The Berlinale honored me with their «Homage» which meant that they showed ten films of mine. Luckily I knew this for a while already, so we could invest a lot of energy last year into restoring these films. «We», that is the Wim Wenders Foundation. I no longer own my films, they are now for two years already the property of the Foundation and thereby rather «own themselves». All profits from the films go into their restoration and into grants for young filmmakers, to promote innovative filmmaking.

Restoring these films was an act directed towards the future. These films exist now in the highest digital resolution of 4K and are ready to survive for a long time. They don’t need me anymore, so to speak. I was relieved that thus a «retrospective act» was turned into something forward-looking.

And the fact that I premiered my new film «Every Thing Will Be Fine» also counteracted the idea that this was a «lifetime achievement» award. Showing a new work would open a door into the future I felt. This is a very new kind of endeavor: a first independent feature film, sort of an intimate family drama, shot in 3D. I’m very happy with it. I had a dream cast, with James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marie-Josée Croze and Rachel McAdams. And I had a fantastic composer in your countryman Alexandre Desplat. He wrote the most amazing orchestral score for us. As you can see: I’m very happy with «Every Thing Will Be Fine».



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