Clash of the titans through a lens

Rough ride for Oscar-nod documentary The Salt Of The Earth.

by Richard Mowe

Image conscious (from left): Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Sebastião Salgado and Wim Wenders, collaborators on The Salt of the Earth. The atmosphere was not always so amicable ...
Image conscious (from left): Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Sebastião Salgado and Wim Wenders, collaborators on The Salt of the Earth. The atmosphere was not always so amicable ... Photo: Thierry Pouffary

The epic still photographs of Brazilian artist and environmentalist Sebastião Salgado take pride of place in a spectacular new documentary about his life and work. Directed by Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Pina) in association with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, The Salt Of The Earth was awarded Un Certain Regard Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival and was Oscar nominated. The relationship between Salgado fils and Wenders was strained to breaking point at times...

Richard Mowe: Have you been bowled over by the way the film has been received so enthusiastically?

Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: Its success is a huge surprise – from that first moment in Cannes when we had such an amazing reception, to the shortlist for the Oscars and now the nomination. It is really incredible. It is shining a light on our film, which has something to say and has a message. It is the story of my father… a man who looked in the eye the worst of human nature and exposed it to everyone. He managed to transfer that experience in to something that is so positive and so bright. It is a message of hope that is very powerful.

RM: How did the collaboration with Wim come about?

Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: “We found it almost impossible with two directors …"
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: “We found it almost impossible with two directors …"

JRS: In 2009 Wim was invited to my parents’ house because he wanted to do something about Sebastião’s work but he did not know how or when. At this point my father wanted me to go with him to shoot a reportage about the Zo'é people, a Brazilian tribe who were amazingly nice and helpful. When I came back my father saw how I was looking at him through those pictures and he was very moved. That gave him trust in our relationship and that was the moment I started chatting with Wim about making the film. We felt that Sebastião had more to say than simply the dialogue with his pictures. I came to know my frequently absent father by doing the film. When we first put it together it was two and a half hours long and we trimmed it back which took us a year and a half. When it was almost finished and we were fine tuning it, Sebastião saw a version and said it was OK. My parents then saw it complete at the Rio De Janeiro Film Festival a few months later and they were immensely moved by it. So that brought us even closer together. Of course he was delighted about the Oscar and very proud of his son!

RM: As Salgado’s son you were close to the material. Did it take time for you to be convinced that you could do the subject justice?

JRS: Basically what got us together with Wim Wenders was the idea that we should not do a film about a photographer but rather a portrait of a great witness of humanity, someone who had experienced humanity in a way that very few people have. From that experience there was a lot to share and we could learn a lot from it. As a family and with friends we had learned a lot but we thought we could learn more and that we could share it with a much wider audience.

We had this clear idea but we did not know how we were going to make it. Then we discovered that there was this arc. We thought it was very cinematic material. Wim and I proceeded and workshopped some of the ideas we had. I had a very conflictual relationship with my father in the beginning so Wim had to do the interviews. Then we started editing and the problems arose.

RM: What was the problem?

JRS: We found it impossible with two directors. We faced up to the situation and I started editing on my own. And so I edited it for two months and showed it to Wim who hated it and shouted for me to stop. And then he took the film away from me and edited and we looked at it together and agreed it didn’t seemed to work either. And we kept playing that game for a year and eventually we realised that none of us could do justice to Sebastião. The solution for that was for us to park our egos and to sit together and to actually share the making of the film. And then we found a third film that was not my vision and it was not his vision but it became bigger than both of us. I was very happy it happened that way in the end and I learned a lot from the process. Now I am proud of it.

What was it like to grow up in that kind of atmosphere, and do you have any siblings?

JRS: I have a brother Rodrigo who has Down's Syndrome. I was very responsible for him. It was quite hard growing up with an absent father but it was also quite rich. My father was almost never at home. We missed him a lot but when he came back he had so much to share of his experiences. My philosophy was that you win and you lose but somehow it balanced out.

RM: Did your father give you the inspiration to become a film-maker?

"The solution for that was for us to park our egos and to sit together and to actually share the making of the film."
"The solution for that was for us to park our egos and to sit together and to actually share the making of the film."

JRS: It was more out of necessity. I became a film-maker when my girlfriend became pregnant at 22 and I had to find a way of supporting her – I was studying law and economics at the time. I realised I did not want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life, whereas my father’s life was interesting because he went out into the world and had these incredible experiences. He was doing something that was very political without being tub-thumping. I took a movie camera and started doing reportage for French TV. In 1996, I made my first documentary for Arte, Suzana, on the use of anti-personnel mines in Angola. Then I entered the London Film School, from which I graduated in 2003 and here we are some 12 years later.

RM: When did you realise your father’s photographs were something special?

JRS: It was when he did this first reportage in Ethiopia. And that was also the moment when his pictures were coming out on the front page of Libération [the left-wing French daily] with a big dossier inside and I realised he was making his mark and being a strong influence. He was always a father for me. We lived in Paris and we rented the maid’s room on the top floor of the apartment block where my parents had their lab and developing room. I spent hours with my dad in this room when he came back from his travels. I remember the yellow light and the smell of the acid.

RM: Does he have photographic heroes himself?

JRS: Yes he does, but they keep changing. Henri Cartier Bresson was one of his friends and was an influence. There was a guy who did a lot of work in the States during the Depression: Ansel Adams. Bresson did not do the same thing as my father but still they were friends and had a lot of respect for each other.

RM: Did he understand or become involved in politics?

JRS: He has a very rational part of his psyche where he sees the world for what it is in a political way and he understands power relationships and what holds people in their lives. When he makes the photos he becomes this emotional person. It is the relationship he manages to create with the people he is photographing and the way he places the camera. Emotions pass through the photographs.

RM: Does he embrace new technologies?

JRS: I would say he is a bit of a player and not conservative at all. He shoots in digital and embraced it quickly and he he has no nostalgia for film.

RM: Were you ever tempted to try photographic yourself?

JRS: No, not at all – perhaps with my iPhone a bit and the occasional selfie. The impact of photography has changed because there are so many pictures these days. Editorial conditions have changed as well and there are no longer the same opportunities. They still have a place and photographers have very light equipment now that can pass frontiers and be unobtrusive. Photography is a powerful instrument to enable us to experience things that we cannot experience in real life. Certainly a film team cannot work the same way because it is too massive and complicated. It becomes fake because it's more obvious.

RM: Where is home for you now?

JRS: I live in Berlin where I went to edit the film. I met an amazing Brazilian woman there and we are together and living there. I divide my time between Germany and Brazil. I find Berlin less frenetic than Paris, and it is way cheaper. You can have a normal life without living far from the centre because of costs. And compared to Paris people are much less stressed.

Richard Mowe interviewed Juliano Ribeiro Salgado at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris earlier this year.

You can read more of what Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders have to say about The Salt Of The Earth here.

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