VOD film review: The Salt of the Earth
Josh Slater-Williams | On 17, Jul 2015
Directors: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Cast: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
With The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders has helmed yet another strong documentary about a fellow artist (see Pina), though this time he’s on co-directing duties with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the son of his documentary’s subject. The film profiles Sebastião Salgado, an acclaimed Brazilian photojournalist whose life has mostly been spent chronicling the misfortunes of victims of man’s cruelty and selfishness; massacred Tutsi in Rwanda and famine victims in the Sahel region of central Africa are just two of the striking subjects of his camera’s lens.
Structurally, the film is largely built around a montage and discussion of Salgado’s (predominantly black and white) photographs. They come up, Salgado annotates their context with narration, and Wenders and Salgado Jr. lay on an ambient soundtrack. There’s a real risk that The Salt of the Earth could come across as little more than a glorified slideshow, but it has two key factors in its favour. Firstly, Salgado’s remarkable images are inescapably haunting. Secondly, the man’s cumulative recollections of what he saw while taking them have a power of their own, leaving you wondering how he even has the mental and spiritual strength to carry on day to day, considering the horrors he’s seen (yet alone the human suffering he witnessed that didn’t make it onto film). Salgado’s own conclusion about his work is that “everyone should see these images to see how terrible our species is”. So while one might view The Salt of the Earth as the filmic equivalent of browsing through coffee-table books you bought after visiting a gallery exhibition, it’s a visually compelling and emotional experience.
One aesthetic choice of interest projects footage of Salgado’s talking head over particular photos. He becomes part of the picture, and the picture becomes part of him. Through this, Wenders and Salgado’s son succinctly get across a major concern of the documentary, and most of Wenders’ other documentaries of late: the artist is inextricably linked to their art.
The film’s final third sees a detour into new territory, following its subject travelling for a more recent photo project called Genesis, which attempts to chronicle the roughly 50 per cent of Earth largely untouched by human interference. Intended as a tribute to the planet, the 2004-2013 project is described by Salgado as an artistic risk, being that he’s a social photographer venturing into the field of landscape and wildlife photography.
Following the shocking content that precedes it, the Genesis project comes as a welcome, optimistic relief of sorts, although its more tranquil nature allows one to become distracted and ponder a few issues with the documentary: contentious family dynamics, for example, are established regarding Salgado’s disappearing for years at a time, but then dropped with nary a trace of further exploration; at a certain point, too, Salgado’s wife seems to just disappear from the film, bar a brief glimpse at the start of the Genesis section. Elsewhere, there are some niggles when it comes to the voice-over. When the photographer himself is talking over the images, it’s a fascinating commentary. The thing is that Wenders and Salgado Jr. are also behind the microphone at various points, either to inject biographical back-story or to exposit about Salgado’s other exploits. As such, there’s a jerky rhythm to the film’s flow, and the lack of a consistent voice means Salgado as a subject occasionally slides out of focus. Nevertheless, there are many moments of transcendental humanism in The Salt of the Earth. The standout images will linger far, far longer than the muddled nature of its message.