Glasgow FF15 #11: The Salt of the Earth (Le sel de la terre, France/Brazil/Italy 2014)

One of the images from Sebastião_Salgado's project 'Workers'

One of the images from Sebastião Salgado’s project ‘Workers’

GFT3 was packed for the second screening of this documentary at 10.45 in the morning. It all bodes well for a new film by Wim Wenders for whom documentary has been the most successful film mode in the UK in the last twenty years (i.e. Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 and Pina, 2011). He co-directs Salt of the Earth with Julian Ribeiro Sagado and it is his co-director’s father, the photographer Sebastião Salgado who is the subject of the film.

Going into the screening, the only thing I knew about Sebastião Salgado was that he was a great photographer as evidenced by an exhibition I had seen at what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford in the 1990s. A single B+W image of the thousands of workers toting loads up and down the steep sides of an open cast gold mine in Brazil has stayed with me ever since. That image (and associated film footage and stills – see the image above) is used early in the film to introduce us to Sebastião before we see him at work more recently and then flashback to his university days and the launching of his career.

Salgado was born in North-East Brazil on a farm/plantation and after degrees in economics he found himself working for agencies like the World Bank and making frequent trips to Africa. He was living in Paris with his wife Lélia when the couple made the brave decision to invest in a new joint career in photography. Sebastião became a social documentary photographer who spent months and then years away from home for long periods on ambitious projects like ‘Workers’ and Lélia worked with the agencies, catalogued the images and organised the project material.

My viewing companion is a photographer and he confirmed the talents and skills that Salgado employs. Working mainly in B+W in the earlier projects, he shows great technical mastery of exposure and light control, most evident in the extraordinary depth of field of massive landscape images. He also has a fabulous eye for composition and, presumably enormous patience and the social skills to persuade his subjects to ‘pose’ informally to make his compositions work.

Salgado working on his latest project in the rain forest of Indonesia.

Salgado working on his latest project in the rain forest of Indonesia.

The key moment in Salgado’s story came when he experienced the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. After coping with other disasters like drought in the Sahel and blazing oilfields in Kuwait, the massacres in Rwanda devastated him and he lost his faith in humanity. In the final stage of his life he has turned to wildlife, the environment and isolated communities who live off the land. We follow him shooting for new projects in Siberia, and the rainforests of South America and Indonesia. He and Lélia have also transformed his family farm, ravaged by deforestation, and replanted 2 million saplings as the basis for a new national park. Salgado’s life has been remarkable – and he is a good storyteller.

The documentary is expertly compiled from archive and new footage. France is the main production partner and Salgado speaks in French most of the time. Wenders provides an excellent introductory commentary in English (the language of international cinema) and there is some Portuguese. I found every moment of the 109 minutes compelling and I think this will be a big hit. Salgado’s images on a big screen are extremely powerful. I should add one note of caution. When I spoke to a friend who also remembered seeing the exhibition in Bradford, he said that he did worry that the images had been presented as primarily art objects and not in their proper political context. I understand this argument and I think that it is something to consider, but in terms of the film’s narrative I think that Wenders and Julian Salgado foreground this issue so that viewers are aware of it. Even so there are a handful of images from Africa in both famine and genocide sequences that are truly horrific and some audiences will find upsetting.

Curzon have got the rights for the film in the UK but since it doesn’t have a BBFC certificate yet it may be some time before it hits cinemas. Here is the official trailer. Feast your eyes on these images and I defy you not to plan to see the film if at all possible. You won’t be disappointed.

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