German director Wim Wenders is best known for his fiction films from the 70s and 80s, especially 1987’s worldwide sensation Wings of Desire. In recent decades, however, he’s devoted much of attention to non-fiction movies that focus on outstanding artists, for example the great Cuban musicians of The Buena Vista Social Club, and more recently the innovative choreographer Pina Bauch in Pina, from 2011. Now he turns to photography, profiling the renowned Brazilian documentary artist and photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado. The film is called The Salt of the Earth, and as Wenders himself says early on, it turns out to be about much more than a photographer.
We begin with a stunning example from Salgado’s incredibly vivid black-and-white images—a series of photos from the massive Serra Palada gold mine in central Brazil, where we see thousands upon thousands of people working in the open pit sometime in the 1980s. Here is one major theme of Salgado’s work: the life of manual laborers.
We then proceed to the man’s fascinating life, earning a degree as an economist, escaping the military dictatorship with his wife Lelia, herself an active creative partner in the work, to live in Paris in the 1970s, and his eventual discovery of photography as his true vocation. Interspersed within the chronology are segments showing Salgado in the present, shooting a tribal dance in Borneo, and a herd of walruses on an Arctic island.
Wenders has teamed up with the photographer’s son, Juliano Robeiro Salgado, to co-direct the film, and the younger man brings a touching intimacy to the project, including footage of his grandfather, the elder Sebastiao, talking about the challenge of raising his son along with seven daughters.
But it’s the work that takes center stage of course, accompanied by insightful commentary, in French, from the artist himself. He traveled to over 100 different countries around the world, immersing himself in native communities of South America, Asia, and especially Africa. From natives and workers he proceeded to refugees, and his photos of the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s brought that crisis to the attention of the world. He then almost literally stumbled on the genocide in Rwanda and the subsequent tragedies of displacement. This part of the film, with its images of the dead and dying, is heartbreaking and can be difficult viewing, yet necessary in order to understand, as he puts it, how violent and unjust our species can be. This socially conscious mission extended into the 90s with work in the former Yugoslavia and other sites of oppression and despair. It eventually wore him down, and he had to return to Brazil, having lost whatever faith he may have had in humanity.
The next phase of his career, inspired once again by his indomitable wife Lelia, was so wonderful that I won’t give away the details in this review. Suffice it to say that one comes away from The Salt of the Earth as if having experienced the full range of human life, from joy to suffering and death to a new and unexpected hope. The imagery of this great artist, and the film that tells of his life, will sear itself into your soul.