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Politics Are Inescapable
By Donal Foreman

Peter Cowie, Walter Salles."Cinema is about the possibility of collective exchange." This was the last thing director Walter Salles said in his conversation with film critics Peter Cowie and José Carlos Avellar yesterday — but it's a good place to start in understanding what they discussed. Kicking off the Berlinale Talent Campus events, the discussion focused on the idea of political cinema, with Salles showing and discussing clips of some political films that influenced him, as well as scenes from his own work. Avellar, a well-regarded Brazilian film scholar, provided an historical context to Salles' comments, discussing in particular the Brazilian Cinema Nuevo movement of the 1960s and what political implications it had.

Salles began with his own definition of political film — two definitions in fact: 1) "that it is a film not only about characters, but about characters changed by their political and social environment" and 2) that it is a film that "talks about what hasn't been talked about" and shows what hasn't been shown. To illustrate these arguments, segments were presented from the works of Eisenstein, Pontecorvo, Rossellini and Tomás Gutiérrez among others. Each presented in different ways characters who are forced to confront the social and political reality of their country and are irreversibly changed in doing so. Yet they all enacted these narratives in strikingly different and innovative ways — as if to truly change their characters, they had to reinvent film form as well.

Watching the clips presented of Salles' own films, one could identify the same narrative pattern. However, while each film shows a progression towards the kind of stylistic politicization of Rossellini et al — personally, I don't believe that Salles' work has reached it yet. Godard was a favourite source of quotes during the discussion, but nobody mentioned his best line: that one should not make political films, but make films politically. While his last film, The Motorcycle Diaries, comes closer to this, it still employs old-fashioned forms and occasionally gives into cliché.

During the questions and answers that followed the discussion, one Campus member asked whether there was room for films with no particular socio-political context: films that were simply personal and individual. Salles suggested that no matter what kind of film you make, politics are inescapable; even a film of two people in a room would be political, because of the background they come from, the language they speak, etc. Avellar expanded this statement by suggesting that ultimately, "political cinema is a way of looking at cinema" and we politicize films by how we choose to relate to them.

While Salles is clearly motivated in part by specific left-leaning politics, he acknowledges the importance of diversity and, from his description of politics as the collision and exchange of different perspectives, and his belief in approaching a film "like a question" rather than to prove a point — it's clear that Salles' concept of politics isn't a dogmatic one. Here's hoping that he continues to develop this on screen.

Donal Foreman

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