The Salt of the Earth (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A picture of a woman had impacted director Wim Wenders so deeply that he hopes to find out what drives the person who took it and understand why he had left an impression on the filmmaker. The photograph was shot by renowned social photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose outstanding work ranges from covering stories for Doctors Without Borders to restoring a forest in Brazil. The subject is fascinating because he has lived.
The film opens by showing a photograph of hundreds of men in a goldmine. For a split-second, I was reminded of those great scenes in old epic movies where hundreds, even thousands, of extras are employed because computer generated images was not yet possible. It is most impressive how one photograph contains so much detail, from the ladders hanging from hundreds of feet above to the grimy but expressive faces of those desperate to find gold. Via narration, it is explained to us that even though the figures on the photograph appear to look like slaves, they are far from it. These people are intellectuals, university graduates, some are farmers. They are, however, slaves to the hope of striking it rich.
Aside from Salgado’s actual, well-chosen photographs, the narration is one of the most effective elements in the film. There are times when the director is speaking but there are sequences where we hear from Salgado himself. They inspire us to not only look at the images as they are or to evaluate the technical elements that make a successful picture. Instead, at times they allow us to consider the historical context, the feelings of the people being photographed, maybe even what Salgado was thinking at the time when he captured a moment. It offers an educational experience both from a filmmaker’s and a photographer’s standpoint. That is what makes the documentary special.
Although memorable images are abound, especially when the film takes its time to cover the repercussions of the severe droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, one photograph that made an impression on me depicts an image of a dead child in a snug coffin. His eyes are forcibly open because he had not been baptized. He is to be buried this way—but sans the rental coffin. Having the eyes open would allow him to find his way given the belief that children who have not been baptized prior to their deaths are not allowed to enter heaven. After hearing this, I caught myself tuning out of the picture—which is a good thing because it has forced my mind to actively process the information that had been provided. The documentary is likely to hold up upon second viewing.
Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s son, “The Salt of the Earth” is executed with verve, a willingness to engage, and a sense of purpose. I admire the picture for shedding light not only on the human condition but also to remind us that we should be humbled as a species for having the privilege of living on this planet. The closing section of the film involves Salgado’s work with nature—the plants, animals, and inanimate objects only found in little-seen areas of the planet.