The Salt of the Earth (2014, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) is one of those documentaries that confounds expectations, particularly among documentaries about photography. The art of photography is front and center here, don't get me wrong, and not just in the inevitable still frame images that litter the movie. One of my first impressions of The Salt of the Earth is that the era of film as the medium for motion pictures--or for the capture of images more generally--is well and truly over. The shot beneath the title card is as beautiful an image as anything ever captured on silver nitrate on celluloid. That's not what this film is about, true, but it's a subtext that wormed its way into my mind as I watched. Hell, this film may not even be about its nominal subject, the photographer Sebastião Salgado, though it is through his eyes and through his images that the film extrapolates its broad themes. Director Wim Wenders suggests this when he describes his reaction to the first of Salgado's photographs that he ever saw. "This is a man who loves humanity," he thought. Too much as it turns out.
Saldago is a social photographer in the grand tradition of Walker Evans or Margaret Bourke White. The movie paints Saldago as a kind of witness to humanity over the last half decade, tracing his careeer from his youth as a student activist in Brazil and then as an economist with the IMF. An exile in Paris, he abandons his career in order to pursue photography, first in Africa, and then all over the world. Saldago's images witness capitalist exploitation in South America, famine in Ethiopia, genocide in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and The Congo. Eventually he has to turn away, retreating to his family home in north-eastern Brazil, where he and his wife embark on a reclamation project to bring back the rainforest there. Successfully, as it so happens. Returning to photography, the film follows Salgado to New Guinea and deep in the Amazon to document the remaining indigenous peoples there, and to a remote island north of Siberia where he photographs walruses. The movie ends on the hopeful notion that the earth can recover from human beings. Whether or not human beings can recover from human beings is another matter.
The grand theme of The Salt of the Earth is one of human depravity. You get a hint of this in the first images Wenders selects for his narrative. It's an open pit mine in South America where men from all walks of life dig for gold. The press of humanity in these images is breathtaking. The exploitation of these people is palpable. Wenders concludes from these images that people really are "the salt of the earth," a designation that becomes more and more ironic as the film goes on. There are hints at the vast scale of human misery in Salgado's first major project, a survey of South America in the 1970s. These only become broader as time goes on. The scale is global, whether it's the gamble for gold in the Sierra Pelada mine or the burning oil fields of Kuwait in the wake of Saddam Hussein. The images are heartbreaking and occasionally surreal. One group of photographs documents a wildlife preserve owned by the Kuwaiti royal family that has been drenched in oil, where horses and birds take on a strange, sculpted look. There violation of nature is almost as horrible as the violation of humanity.
Human beings are capable of such horrible acts of violence. His photographs from sites of genocide have a terrible beauty to them. They have the same reportorial horror as photos from concentration camps, as filtered through a fierce aesthetic sensibility. It's not enough to point a camera, Salgado says. You have to make a good picture. We see him struggle with this while trying to photograph walruses against a barren, featureless shoreline. In general, though, any investigation of process and aesthetics are swamped by the force of what's contained in his images. The aesthetics makes looking at those pictures tolerable. Eventually, the film doesn't even bother with the creative process, a common failing of Wenders's documentaries about art and artists, nor does the film ask any of the obvious ethical questions about selling such images as art. In this case, the horror is just too much. It overwhlems everything. "We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It's an endless story, a tale of madness," Salgado laments, explaining why he turned away from such things for environmental pursuits.
I can understand why a humane optimist might feel the need to end the film on a note of hope and salvation in examining Salgado's "Instituto Terra." It's not exactly unearned, either, and it does cushion the film's blow as it winds to a close. I can't decide if that's a good thing or not.
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