Salt of the Earth, The (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.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A fashion photographer for The New York Times, Bill Cunningham’s method (née William J. Cunningham) of taking pictures is, to say the least, unique. Every day, he steps onto the streets of New York City with his bike and scouts for people who wear clothing that strike him as different—clothes that make a statement about specific individuals that day and the essence of their personal styles.
Directed by Richard Press, “Bill Cunningham New York” is filled to the brim with optimism in connection to how a person’s passion is able to garner the respect of those around him, from the elite fashionistas to regular New Yorkers who are aware of the work he does. With each passing minute, the question is not how he is able to accomplish everything he does, especially considering his age, but how we can try to achieve that level of dedication in our own work and find happiness within it.
The style of the documentary matches Bill Cunningham’s effervescence. Although many interesting people are interviewed, like fashion icon Iris Apfel, fashionista Patrick McDonald, and photographer Editta Sherman, the statements are concise and eye-opening without sacrificing their off-kilter sense of humor.
A similar technique is used when Bill roams the streets in search of capturing clothes that are worth publishing. Fast cuts are abound; once a picture has been taken, it is onto the next crosswalk or corner—click, click, click. The synergy among the style of presentation, Bill’s dynamism, and NYC’s hustle and bustle make the film come alive. And then there are those who have no idea who he is (they probably thought he was just a creepy old man) and they are not afraid to tell him what they can do to his camera.
I enjoyed how the material answered my questions just after I formed them in my head. That is, what separates Bill Cunningham from those pesky paparazzi? One of the people being interviewed says his photographs are not used for cruelty. Specifically, he is adamant that his work is never used to ridicule or evaluate how a person lives his or her life. There is a fascinating story about the fallout between Bill and “Women’s Wear Daily.”
Amidst the infectious stream of positivity, there is a hint of real pain. I admired that the director dares to ask his subject about two things: his romantic life and religion. Although Bill is able to answer the questions, the emotions behind the implications of his words as well as the way his body tries to hide feelings of shame is a reminder that he is not all that different from you and me. Maybe he is so good at what he does in order to compensate for something else.
“Bill Cunningham New York,” like its subject, aims and succeeds in observing and capturing a lifestyle. It is cheerful and to the point. It gets us into the mood of stepping out into the sunshine and seek beauty for ourselves.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.
Somers Town (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two lonely teenagers met in London and we have the pleasure to observe them for a couple of days. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and his father (Ireneusz Czop) were Polish immigrants. Marek mostly kept to himself as he slowly nourished his interest in photography. His father worked during the day and drank with his friends at night. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) turned sixteen and his first big decision was to move to London for reasons unknown. He was mugged on his first night in the big city but this did not change his romantic view of it. Marek and Tomo met at a local café where Marek told Tomo about his crush on a waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski). Then the two devised ways to get her attention, but one day she left unexpectedly for Paris. Shot in grainy black-and-white, “Somers Town” reminded me of those great movies in the 1960s during the French New Wave era. Its plot was relatively thin but the emotions were so complex that it was hard to say goodbye to the two characters after just 70 minutes of them getting to know each other. Despite Marek and Tomo coming from economically poor backgrounds, I loved that Paul Fraser, the writer, did not harden their hearts and their yearning for attention did not predictably lead to violence. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Tomo and Marek made mistakes as most people their age do but they were sensitive and had a clear view of what was right and wrong. Highlighting their positive qualities was a smart move because the picture’s running time was relatively short. By doing so, I immediately related to the characters and I had a chance to explore the dynamics of their friendship. There were more than a handful of very funny scenes but my favorite was when the duo stole a bag of laundry because Tomo did not have any clothes. The bag mostly contained women’s clothing and I couldn’t help but laugh when Marek told Tomo to look at the brighter side: the clothes may not have been for men but at least they were clean unlike the same clothes that Tomo had been wearing since he arrived in London. In return, Tomo made the clothes work but it was still painfully obvious that he wore a dress. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh or even crack a smile if they watched that particular scene. For a low budget film, I was very impressed with the originality, creativity and imagination that “Somers Town” possessed. It was apparent that Shane Meadows directed his film with passion and zeal because I had fun with it throughout. When the movie finally shifted from black-and-white to color, it felt like my eyes opened for the first time. I guess it was also how Marek and Tomo felt when they finally entered a culture so different from theirs. Suddenly, their futures looked bright.
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Zana Briski decided to go to Calcutta’s red-light district in hopes of getting a chance to document how it was really like, especially for women, to live in the brothels. But her mission evolved when she got closer to the prostitutes’ children; she realized that the kids needed a chance to get out of the red-light district so she handed the children simple cameras, used their photographs to raise money, get international acclaim and get them into boarding schools. I was really touched by this documentary because the kids offered such insight about their living situations. Even though the kids were very young, they knew the importance of education but at the same time some of them came to accept that most of them would never leave the district. Or worse, they would turn out like their parents. Despite knowing the nature of their mothers’ jobs, the kids were aware of the fact that their mothers had to sacrifice their own bodies and safety in order to support their families. One of the kids that really moved me said that she doesn’t ever see herself becoming rich, that she’ll be happy being poor because life is supposeed to be sad and difficult. I understand the hopelessness of the children because of how and where they’ve been raised, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that nothing better is in store for them because I wasn’t raised in an environment that was even as close to theirs. The realism of this picture was staggering but it’s nice to reminded of the fact that the events that we’ve seen in the movie is still happening today. Briski’s decision to teach the children the art of photography has to be commended. The children were powerless but having a camera their hands was like handing them a special power. It was easy to see the light in those children’s eyes when they would run around in the streets and take random pictures of people and objects. I was surprised with how well some of the photographs turned out and was convinced that some of them just had a natural gift in photography. I don’t know if the children realized it but taking pictures was like an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. And the way they talked about Briski, I could tell that the kids looked up to her so much and probably even considered her as their hero. “Born Into the Brothels,” directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, was a rich and emotionally challenging documentary. The movie may have been shot with a simple hand-held camera (at least from what it looked like) but it was bold in terms of really exploring the sociological and psychological impacts of the environment had on the children.