The Documentary on Jia Zhang-Ke By Walter Salles

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Myrna Silveira Brandão

“Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles”, selected by Panorama Dokumente, received a full-house crowd at the 65th Berlinale.

The documentary was the result of the days Salles spent in the north of China, filming where Jia (in Chinese surnames are given first) was born and made his first features. It portrays the life and the creative process of the film-maker while at the same time examining the close relationship between memory and cinema.

In the film, Jia invites Salles and his crew to discover aspects of his personal history and the sources of his inspiration, as well as some of the individuals who appear in his films. To do so, he returns to places where he lived and filmed Xiao Wu (aka Pickpocket), Platform, The World, 24 City, Still Life and A Touch of Sin.

Salles recalled that it was 17 years ago, also at the Berlinale, that he had his first contact with Jia’s work: “Jia’s first film, Xiao Wu, premiered in Berlin in 1998, the same year that Central Station was also competing at the festival and won the Golden Bear. Each new film he makes strengthens the impression that he is the Chinese director who best ‘translates’ our times. It is from this perception that our film is born”, says Salles – explaining that, since he first saw Xiao Wu, he was deeply impressed by the director’s work.

“I was extremely touched by the way is personal remembrances transform into collective memories – Still Life, for instance, is a cinematic landmark. Jia proposes a reflection on the times in which he is living and registers something that is mutating in this very moment. Time becomes a personage”, Salles notes, remembering that the idea to make this documentary first came to him at the 2007 São Paulo International Film Festival.

“The initial project comes from that time, but we only started filming during the 2013/2014 period. When we first talked, I said that I would like to explore his ‘cinema memory’ across several layers. But, while we were filming, he added other things, such as his relationship with his father – that is,  his emotional memory, also”, added the director, saying that he did not encounter any difficulties when it came to making the film in the Fenyang area: “When we make a documentary, we are constantly facing the unexpected, but Jia embraced the film in such a way that everything became easier”, said Salles, expressing the feeling of what changed after he finished the documentary.

“It was a transformative experience not only for me, but for everyone in our team. I think that the film explores the character of the director, as well as the whole oeuvre which he has built”, Salles added, stressing that Jia’s extreme sensibility, and also the his simplicity, were fundamental for the symmetry that was created while filming.

“Like Jia says, we are not foreigners, we participate of the same world, the cinema world.  I feel that to be back in Berlin with a documentary about him is an honour”, continues the Brazilian director, who came to the festival also to participate in the important section Berlinale Talents. In addition, Salles took part in the festival’s tribute to Wim Wenders, who received an honorary Golden Bear in recognition of his lifetime achievement.

Edited by Neil Young