‘The Salt of the Earth’: A visually mesmerizing documentary

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For Digital First Media

You may not be able to place the name, Sebastião Salgado. However, his widely admired photographs have attained an iconic status.

For over four decades, the Brazilian social documentary photographer has traveled the planet, visiting more than 100 countries in the process. His photographs are noteworthy not only for their beauty, but for their subtext. Salgado was a master of capturing  the venality of the human species and the suffering  that it creates.

“The Salt of the Earth” chronicles the photographer’s life and evolving perspective on the human condition. “The Salt of the Earth” is co-directed and co-narrated by veteran director, Wim Wenders, and the subject’s filmmaker son,  Juliano  Ribeiro Salgado. The film vacillates between black and white and color sections. Wenders helms the former, while then younger Salgado handles the latter.

“The Salt of the Earth” is a paean to Salgado, not only his extensive body of work, but to the man himself. It adopts a reverential tone, which is ordinarily reserved for testimonials to the deceased.

However, Salgado is very much alive. Now 71, he appears onscreen intermittently throughout the film. At times, Salgado offers commentary. At other junctures, he simply appears on the screen, staring out at the viewer with a fixed gaze. This may sound somewhat gimmicky. However, Salgado’s craggy face and bald dome have an intrinsic resonance. In a gallery of the compelling human faces, which Salgado has captured in still photographs, his own visage would fit in nicely.

Salgado grew up on his family’s sprawling farm in central Brazil. He studied at the University of São Paulo, where he became sympathetic to ‘60s era, left-wing student activism. He married a fellow student, Lélia Wanick. In the film, she emerges as a vital component of Salgado’s success, providing not only emotional support, but attending to the more mundane aspects of his career.

Salgado spent his early adulthood working as an international economist, conducting studies for the World Bank. In that context, he visited the many third world countries that provided coffee beans. While on assignment, he began taking photographs in earnest and discovered that he had an uncanny facility with the camera. By 1973, he grew disaffected and abandoned a promising career as an economist to pursue his muse as a photographer.

As a result of Salgado’s decision, we are the beneficiaries of his extraordinary body of work.  Salgado documented some of the most compelling aspects of modern times. This includes depictions of thousands of workers laboring in the open-pit gold mines of Brazil’s Serra Pelada in Brazil; the victims of famine in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel; the bloody Balkan warfare, triggered by the disintegration of Yugoslavia; and the burning oil fields of Kuwait, during the first Gulf War. Salgado’s magnificent photographs were mounted in exhibitions and were collected in a series of books.

After being subjected to the genocide in the Rwanda, Salgado becomes consumed with despair.  He ruefully lamented, “We humans are terrible animals.”

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "The Salt of the Earth" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OivMlWXtWpY

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “The Salt of the Earth” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OivMlWXtWpY

Just as the film seems prepared to end on a cynical note, it veers off on a more hopeful direction. Salgado visits his parents, who have succumbed to deprivations of old age. As a result of droughts, their farm had grown parched and denuded of its once lush foliage. Salgado and his wife, Lélia, embarked on a seemingly quixotic mission. They restored a vast swatch of land to its former splendor. By 1998, they transformed their portion of the Amazon Rain Forest into the so-called Instituto Terra. The nature preserve is dedicated to the principles of reforestation, conservation, and environmental education.

Wenders clearly adores Salgado. He recounts the epiphany that he experienced, when he first encountered one of Salgado’s photographs. Even today, it hangs framed prominently above the filmmaker’s desk.

The relationship between the photographer and his son may further subvert the objectivity of this documentary. However, it nevertheless enriches “The Salt of the Earth.” Salgado spent much of his time away from his family on self-assigned photographic projects. Although the globetrotting photographer may have been physically absent, Salgado fils nevertheless exhibits a strong emotional bond to him. The younger Salgado recalls thinking of his father not so much as a photographer as an intrepid adventurer. “The Salt of the Earth” touchingly includes footage of the two men collaborating on “Genesis.” The project depicted still pristine areas of the planet. In the course of making that film, the two Salgados visited such far-flung destinations as Papua, New Guinea and the Wrangel Island in Siberia.

The filmmakers have no interest in acknowledging the critics of Salgado’s work. After seeing his remarkable images, it is hard to imagine that Salgado has any detractors, but he does. The influential essayist, Ingrid Sischy, assailed Salgado in a 1991 “New Yorker” article for his putative aestheticization of human tragedy. She insisted, “[T]his beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize is the fastest way to anesthetize the feeling of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.” Does Sischy’s argument have any merit? Are we to conclude that Salgado’s images would somehow have greater validity if they weren’t so brilliantly rendered?

The film’s score by Laurent Petitgand is a mellifluous complement to the visual text. It buttresses the film’s hypnotic quality.

“The Salt of the Earth” garnered a Special Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard section and was nominated for an Oscar as best documentary.

“The Salt of the Earth” is a visually stunning film, which will leave you mesmerized.

**** PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity) 109 minutes. In English, French and Portuguese, with English subtitles

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year, He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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