Sunday, July 26, 2015

1947. Film Review: The Salt of the Earth (On Life and Work of Sebastião Salgado)

By Kamran Nayeri, July 26, 2015
A photo from Sahel: The End of the World
The Salt of the Earth (France and Brazil, 2014) is the best artistic and deeply political film I have seen in a long time. It is a biographical documentary of the life and work of Sebastião Salgado the legendary Brazilian social photographer.  Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, it has won many honors and awards. Salgado defines his work as "militant photography" dedicated to "the best comprehension of man."  More than any other living photographer, Sebastiao Salgado's images of the world's poor stand in tribute to the human condition, from famine-stricken refugees in the Sahel to the indigenous peoples of South America. Mastering the monochrome with an extreme deftness to rival the virtuoso Ansel Adams, Salgado brings black-and-white photography to a new dimension; the tonal variations in his works, the contrasts of light and dark, recall the works of Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour.

Salgado was born in a well-to-do family on February 8, 1944 in Aimorés, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.  In college he radicalized and met his future wife Lélia Wanick.  Having received his Masters in economics, and Lélia receiving her degree in architecture.  After receiving his Masters in economics Salgado took a well paying job with the International Coffee Organization, often traveling to Africa on missions for the World Bank.  However, Lélia who had become an architect noticed how Salgado took over her work camera while displaying great talent in photography.  She suggested to him that he might want to consider becoming a photographer.  He eventually agreed and tried his hand on wedding, portrait and other money making photographic profession. But he was not happy. 

With Lélia’s encouragement Salgado decided to become a social photographer. Thus began a 40 year journey of a world class social photography as the couple worked as a team.  Together they developed projects that sometimes took ten years to complete. Lélia stayed behind to work and to raise their son Juilano while Salgado spent years in far away places getting to know his subjects and taking photos. Once in a while he would return home to be with his family and complete working on his photographs.  The results appeared in many photographic exhibits and  magnificent books including the following:
  • An Uncertain Grace, 1990, with Fred Ritchin about gold miners in Brazil. 
  • Terra: Struggle of Landless, 1998, about landless peasants in Brazil.
  • Migration, 2000, about mass migrations around the globe and their causes.
  • The Children: Refugees and Migrants, 2000, portrays children under the age of 15 from Mozambique, Rwanda, Croatia, Burundi, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Brazil, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Angola, and other countries who will bear the burden of an uncertain future.
  • Sahel: The End of the Road, 2004, about the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa in Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan, where approximately one million people died from extreme malnutrition and related causes.
  • Workers, 2005, about enduring spirit of working men and women.
  • Africa, 2007, portrays war, poverty, disease, and hostile climatic conditions.
  • Geneis, 2013, placing humans in their ecological context. 
Towards the end of the documentary Salgado confesses that decades of witnessing human brutality and human misery has him give up on the human species.  He exclaims: “Our species will die off.  It deserves to die.” (I am paraphrasing) 

However, when his father died Salgado inherits the childhood farm he grew up on except it has now become so degraded that it is essentially barren.  Salgado misses the spring that ran through part of this land and the tropical forest that made running water a possibility. 

Again, after discussions with Lélia they jointly undertake to revive the old forest. They planted 1.5 million trees creating new forest. The springs came back flowing. Salgado found new hope in reviving humanity through reviving nature. The husband and wife turned the farm and revived forest into public land trust for educational purpose as an example of what can be done to repair damages done by humans to the planet. 

If there is a weakness in the documentary it is not interviewing Lélia enough. It seemed to me that she is a rather important figure in the Salgado’s legend.  Still, this is a documentary about the human condition, of our worse, and our best as exemplified in the loving and creative relationship of Sebastião and Lélia and their team effort combined with rare talent of Salgado to draw international attention not only to the crisis that is the dominant feature of the current human condition but also our ability to raise up as the couple did after decades of witnessing helpless misery in reviving the earth that gives life to all and to ourselves.  In the one scene when Lélia speaks she proudly says they have now planted 1.5 million trees. And she adds: there is still plenty of land beyond the hills to planet more trees. 

The Salt of the Earth touches our heart and mind and ends up inspiring us to rejuvenate our environment so brutally destroyed as a way to regain our humanity. 


Shyama Blaise said...

I'm inspired. Just ordered the DVD from Amazon, so I have it to share. Sounds important. Thank you Kamran.

Click here for Gastroscope said...

Wenders showcases his work while giving him a platform to express his philosophical and political views. The doc benefits from a subtly affecting use of music.

website said...

This is an essential film, because of this early discussion of feminist themes, depiction of an orgnized working class, and evidence of the quality work produced by these black listed film producers and actors.