I saw this film last weekend, and, once again, I think this is a movie everyone should see. I said that about the last film I reviewed (Citizenfour), and, in both cases, despite winning awards, they’re only being shown in one cinema in the whole of Melbourne (yes, the same cinema).
Salt of the Earth is a documentary about the life and work of Brasilian photographer, Sebastio Salgado, from around 1969 to 2013, even though he speaks French throughout the entire film.
Salgado was educated as an economist and worked as one in Europe before he made the unorthodox choice of devoting his life to recording peoples and events throughout the world, although, in the latter part of his career, he reinvented himself as a nature photographer. His son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, co-directed the documentary with legendary German filmmaker, Wim Wenders.
The most famous photograph taken by Salgado, which some of you may have seen, is of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brasil (taken in 1986), where people look like ants climbing impossibly steep wooden ladders, laden with bags of dirt and covered in dirt themselves.
There are many layers to this film. Firstly, there is the subject of Salgado himself, who is an extraordinary human being, not least because he goes to places and witnesses events that very few of us have the courage to attempt. Over 40 years he has recorded and chronicled humanity at its best and worst – it’s like he is willing to go and witness what the rest of us have no compulsion to see.
The film is 1hr 45 mins, much of it taken up with monologue from Salgado and full screen projections of his black and white stills. Yet this is anything but boring cinema. His photographs alone have an emotional force that is often attempted yet rarely achieved in cinema. No one leaves this film without being deeply moved and questioning the very place of humanity in the world. Whilst that last statement reads like hyperbole, I will attempt to provide the context that leads me to make it.
Salgado himself is relatively quiet spoken for someone who has seen so much and travelled so widely. Yet his voice is an eminently suitable companion to his photographs, providing a gravitas with no hint of embellishment. The documentary not only tracks his private life but also the series of ‘projects’ he embarked upon, which provides the film’s structure.
Salgado is not someone who simply photographs people, often in circumstances most of us (in the West) can never imagine, he goes and stays with them, in refugee camps in Africa or the jungles of South America, for example. He really does chronicle their lives and, in so doing, captures with his lens their pain or suffering or ebullience that the rest of us can readily empathise with.
He records the Balkan wars, the oil fires in Kuwait, the droughts and consequential famine in Ethiopia and the genocide in Rwanda. This last event made him question humanity itself, and because you literally see the world through his eyes, via his camera, you find yourself doing the same. It was after this that he reinvented himself as a nature photographer, and it is in this role that I feel he produced some of his best work.
There is a point in this movie where I found myself wondering: do we, as a species, deserve the responsibility of being caretakers of this planet? Because that’s the role we have, whether we want it or not. This film brought this home to me more than anything else I’ve seen or read.
It creates a perspective that we rarely contemplate: the petty lives we live in the West, driven by economic consumerism; whilst much of the world is exploited, starved, imprisoned by inescapable poverty; and its wildlife pushed evermore into smaller enclaves, often pursued by poachers.
We have the knowledge and the technology to make the world a better place – I don’t doubt that – but whilst the entire Western world is driven by the accumulation of wealth at the expense of everything else, we will never achieve it.