Wim Wenders’ considerable aptitude as both documentarian and storyteller is further solidified with The Salt of the Earth, a visually arresting and moving tribute to the life and work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, co-directed by his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Wenders, a self-professed long-time “unconditional admirer” of Salgado’s work, has, alongside Juliano, crafted a respectful and distinctly personal portrait of his subject, which, while certainly reverent, never approaches hagiography.
At the talk he gave at the Filmfest München on 28 June,1 Wenders stated that his intentions with Salt of the Earth were to share his enthusiasm for Salgado’s work with an audience who may have been previously unfamiliar with it. In this aim Wenders has doubtless succeeded, with Salt of the Earth offering an in-depth, mostly chronological overview of Salgado’s photography career spanning over four decades.
Salgado is renowned as a social photographer, shooting exclusively in black and white, whose practice is characterised by large-scale, self-assigned assignments of up to several years in often remote or crisis-stricken locations. He has documented several major atrocities of the 20th century: famine in Ethiopia, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia – to name just a few. First gaining the trust and approval of his subjects before photographing them, the intimacy and trust evident in the resulting images testifies to the extraordinary patience, empathy and courage of his practice. Salgado later departed from social photography to instead capture nature. His more recent project Genesis is dedicated to showing parts of the world yet unmarked by human interference, displaying both what we have lost as well as, more optimistically, what can still be recovered. Salgado and his wife Leila, lifelong collaborator and driving force behind much of his work, were also instrumental in successfully replanting a rainforest on a previously worn-down plot of land in Brazil. Known as the Instituto Terra, the project now acts as a template for reforestation around the globe.
Wenders uses a traditional slideshow format to showcase Salgado’s photographs to great effect, as their beauty and impact is enhanced by being shown on a large cinema screen. He also employs what he calls a “dark room” technique. Salgado is placed behind a transparent mirror, upon which his photographs are projected. We see both Salgado and his work as he details their conception in an effective and cinematic approach. The remaining parts of the film include both Wenders’ and Juliano’s footage, with Juliano’s mainly comprising footage from photographic expeditions undertaken together with his father, who he saw little of growing up due to his extended absences. The parts shot by Wenders, comprising partly of black and white landscape shots, recall the distinctive cinematography of Wings of Desire and Kings of the Road, drawing attention to the fondness he shares for the palette with Salgado.
The co-direction aspect of Salt of the Earth was described as somewhat of a learning process by Wenders, with the editing process reportedly taking a gruelling one and a half years. Nevertheless, both Wenders and Juliano Salgado seem to agree that the film was better for it. Salgado said in an interview that an outsider would be better suited to interview his father, his own relationship with Sebastião too charged. In the talk in Munich Wenders also stated that the end product was a more passionate film than he could have made on his own.
While perhaps not reaching the heights of his earlier classics, or his more recent films such as the brilliant Pina (2011), The Salt of the Earth marks a different, more restrained Wenders, who here aims to withdraw his directoral presence as much as possible to give way to Salgado. What emerges is a film whose appeal extends beyond those purely interested in photography, or in seeing Wenders’ latest film; Salgado’s photographic journeys chart the full spectrum of humanity, holding universal relevance.
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