It’s been a golden age for documentaries for some years now, but few are as visually rich and emotionally powerful as the award winning Salt of the Earth. Co-directed by celebrated German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club) in company with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, this is a moving tribute to the art and life of Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian-born photographer whose profound black-and-white images of everything from Ethiopian famine victims to the horrors of Rwanda have borne witness to the most acute human misery of the last several decades.
A leftist as a young man, Salgado fled Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship and initially pursued a career in economics. Further politicized by the poverty he saw while travelling on business in Africa, this amateur shutterbug made the risky move to professional photographer in his 30s. Part artist and part adventurer, he found himself leaving his wife and family for long stretches as he travelled from Papua, New Guinea to the remotest areas of South America. Empathetic and curious, Salgado was able to forge human connections with indigenous peoples, all the while transforming their harsh lives into stunning images. From Hieronymus Bosch-like scenes of thousands of Brazilian open-pit gold miners toiling like ants to the corpse-strewn tableaux of the Bosnian genocide, Salgado challenged the world with unforgettable photos from the world’s darkest places.
The arc of his journey as a man and an artist is elegantly conveyed in Salt, which shows selected photos while Salgado reminisces about when and how they were shot and what they meant to him. There is also current footage to complement the photos, with Wenders working in black and white while the colour footage was shot by Salgado’s eldest son, Juliano. Many of the images – of dead famine victims being washed by family members before burial, or a church transformed into a charnel house in Rwanda – are heartbreaking to watch. And Salgado speaks candidly about how his soul was nearly destroyed by all the horrors he felt obliged to chronicle. “We humans are terrible animals … our history is a history of war,” he laments at one point. But Salgado was able to fashion a happy ending for himself – and the audience – via a recent eight-year photography project celebrating the ecology of the planet and its possibility for renewal.
The Oscar-nominated Salt was beaten by Citizenfour, presumably for political considerations. But judged on artistic merit, the haunting and inspiring Salt is by far the better film.
the Salt of the earth ****
Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. At UVic’s Cinecenta from May 3-9.