Arts Review, Movies

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth featured image

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, directors

Feature documentary bio of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Wim Wenders starts his latest documentary Salt of the Earth with photos that document an astonishing number of workers in a gold mine in Serra Pelada, Brazil. Thousands of miners are crowded in an open pit, hundreds of metres below the surface. As Wenders observes in voice-over, the workers have to run downhill to become part of this mass grimly determined to extract gold or die in the process. Yet the photos, which illustrate this hellish scene are eerily beautiful, somehow preserving the dignified suffering of these workers while also capturing pictorial qualities evocative of Hieronymus Bosch, as a mass of humanity appears in a losing struggle against a landscape that is sure to defeat them.

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This set of photographs, one of which Wenders owns, was shot by the photographer whom many consider to be the best currently making work, Sebastião Salgado. Over the course of a 45-year career, Salgado has shot indelible images in Rwanda during the civil war, Latin America in crisis during the ‘70s and the drought laden area of Sahel, in the southernmost region of the Saharas. He has shot images of workers fighting to keep their jobs and way of life in doomed industries. Withal, he has emphasized the profound humanity of the individuals he’s shot, never exploiting them.

In Salt of the Earth, Wenders and his co-director, the photographer’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado have recounted the story of this visual artist, who has captured images which express the tragedies, ironies and comedies of humanity in the present day. The books that Sebastião Salgado has created—Workers, Other Americas, Migrations, Africa, Sahel: End of the Road—are genuine classics in the genre. Salgado’s photos are gorgeously composed while often capturing the essence of human beings caught in dire circumstances beyond their control. The film is peppered with those images.

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But for Wenders, merely showing Salgado’s photography wouldn’t have been enough. Salt of the Earth has an emotional trajectory, tracing the life of Sebastião and his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado from their roots as exiles from Brazil in the late ‘60s as radical dissenters from a military dictatorship through the creation of their massive projects Workers, Other Americas and eventually Africa. It was in Africa—first in Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of people were starved, some to death, and then in Rwanda, where over a million died in a holocaust—that Sebastião lost faith in humanity.

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Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado show that Sebastião regained his love for humanity after Lélia oversaw the rebuilding of his family’s devastated land—literally bringing back a rainforest was through proper environmental methods. The current book, Genesis,  documents another massive project: the natural land and aboriginal communities throughout the whole world. Salgado is back—and to some extent—so is the world.

Salt of the Earth is a wonderful film. It should be seen!

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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