Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado / Written by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, David Rosier and Camille Delafon
Sebastiao Salgado: Our history is a history of war
I approached seeing THE SALT OF THE EARTH with great skepticism as, with the exception of THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, co-director Wim Wender’s Teutonic approach to filmmaking has always left me cold. Furthermore, with the exception of winning the “Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize” last year at Cannes, this movie was virtually ignored by every prominent film organization that recognized cinematic achievements in 2014. Hence, its nomination for a Best Documentary Oscar over critically acclaimed docs as LIFE ITSELF, JODOROWSKI’S DUNE and KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON was a huge surprise. Lastly, I (erroneously) thought it would be a National Geographic-style snooze-inducing, nature and its inhabitants photo essay.
Upon finally seeing it, I was immediately enthralled as the movie opens with pictures that renowned photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, had taken at an abandoned Brazilian goldmine where thousands of men scale rickety ladders, lugging bags of dirt with dreams they would be filled with gold nuggets. The black and white photographs of the enormity and of the human resiliency scale of this event are astonishing.
The film then, too quickly and conventionally, tells us about the early life of Salgado, narrated by the photographer himself. An economist in Brazil, he moved to Paris, met and married Lelia, his supportive wife, fell in love with photography, had two children: Juliano (the movie’s co-director) and Rodrigo (who has Down’s syndrome). Whereas Salgado’s back stories and insights of the photographic essays shown on film are endlessly fascinating and bring perspective and details that otherwise would be unknown, I would have liked to have known more on how his many extended excursions affected the family dynamics. Had Rodrigo’s challenges influenced the subject matter of many of his pictures? Even now, on screen, the relationship between the father and the co-director son feels strained and withdrawn.
These quibbles aside, the true star of THE SALT OF THE EARTH are the photographs. Those of the famine and drought in Africa scar the heart. The exodus and deaths caused by the wars in Rwanda and Yugoslavia and captured on film are hard to watch and emotionally draining. The heroics of the men, including many Canadians, trying to douse the oil well fires in Kuwait during the Gulf War are inspiring. I was mesmerized by the scenes capturing the lives of indigenous tribes in Indonesia and Brazil. I was less captivated with Salgado photographing polar bears and walruses but that may be just because it reminded me of my one and only time fishing and the endless waiting and waiting until you finally achieve what you set out to do. Whereas I am not a huge fan of nature photojournalism; the denouement of this film documenting Salgado and his wife’s effort to restore his grandfather’s farm that was completely destroyed by erosion and brought back to life by replanting 2 million trees is jaw-dropping in its beauty. In the end and despite my hesitation, I am inspired by THE SALT OF THE EARTH to go to my local library and seek out the works of Sebastiao Salgado published in his books “Workers”, “Exodus”, “Sahel: The End of the Road” and “Genesis”. I intend to spend hours studying this master’s works and genius. If that sounds like too much time for you though, see THE SALT OF THE EARTH.