The Salt Of The Earth


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Salt Of The Earth
"Wenders as a curious, excited filmmaker stretches out his hands to show us all the treasures he has found."

Photographer Sebastião Salgado's images on the big screen are a visual gift as much as the subject matter of his work is a scream for change. Salgado, when we first see him here, could be John Ford looking out over the plains.

Yugoslavia 1994 - 95, Tanzania 1994, Kuwaiti oil fields burning 1991 - Salgado, who has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2001, raises awareness through images that can have the composition of a Bruegel painting or tell of a father's personal tragedy with the force of Schubert's Erlkönig.

Co-directed by Wim Wenders, in silvery black and white, with the photographer's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado shooting in colour, The Salt Of The Earth (Le Sel De La Terre) starts with the famous Serra Pelada gold mine photographs, the series, shot in Brazil in the 1980s, that makes one think of timeless madness, organised greed, physical teamwork and otherworldly skies, all at the same time.

Wenders calls the photographs "writing in light" and they are about what it means to be human. The documentary devotes time to major projects: The Other Americas, Sahel: The End Of The Road, Workers: Archaeology Of The Industrial Age, Exodus and Genesis. There is a kinship in spirit between Salgado's work and that of the late great choreographer poet Pina Bausch that Wenders remembers in Pina. And, why not, let's include fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, subject of his 1989 documentary Notebook On Cities And Clothes. All of them show us the familiar from a startling new angle. This latest exploration is different, though, because "when you have a photographer in front of the camera - he shoots back."

Slavoj Žižek in Sophie Fiennes' The Pervert's Guide To Ideology talked about the power of dreams as a political act and so do Salgado's unforgettable images.

In 2003, at a reception for the opening of Wenders' own photography exhibition in New York, Pictures From The Surface Of The Earth, during a lunar eclipse, Wim told me that his favorite fairy tale was the Grimms' Hans In Luck. It is the story of boundless optimism and the reverse of the American Dream, in which a young man, in a procession of encounters on the road, exchanges the big lump of gold he was given as payment by his master after seven years of work. He trades the gold for a horse, then a cow, a pig, a goose and a heavy grindstone, which Hans eventually drops before returning empty-handed and happy to his mother. And yet, each trade comes with a story. Here, in The Salt Of The Earth, Wenders as a curious, excited filmmaker stretches out his hands to show us all the treasures he has found.

Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's childhood in Paris and his father's early photography travels for The Other Americas to "his continent" are a part of the superhero mystique as is their more recent collaboration, which shows the Salgados rolling around an icy gravel beach, aping a polar bear to get closer to a walrus gathering. The way photographs and interviews with Sebastião Salgado are projected over one another like a palimpsest aids the sensitive celebration.

The Salt Of The Earth, which won the Un Certain Regard Special Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival functions adroitly as a serious reminder of the half-forgotten. Images re-route thinking. The problem of starving children is not a natural disaster. A shop selling shoes, bananas and ice cream in a region where life and death are very close. Photos of dead babies with open eyes in rented coffins. Forests plentiful with birds as a steady reminder that you can live your life differently. With his wife Lélia, Salgado began replanting the eroded land, rebuilding the eco-system around their family home in Brazil, a project called Instituto Terra. Destruction is not the end point.

Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition Genesis, curated by Lélia Wanick Salgado, is currently at the International Center for Photography in New York through January 11, 2015.

Wim Wenders will receive an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement to be awarded on February 12, 2015 during the Berlinale with screenings of ten of his films. A retrospective is planned for March at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Salt of the Earth is one of the 134 documentaries submitted for the 87th Academy Awards short list.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2014
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The Salt Of The Earth packshot
Documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado.
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Director: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders

Year: 2014

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: France, Italy, Brazil

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