Duration: 110 minutes (1 hour 50 minutes)
IMDb Rating: 8.4
Genre: Documentary, Biography, History
Directed By: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
A documentary based on the lifelong works of the French photographer, Sebastião Salgado, ‘The Salt Of The Earth’ is a masterpiece in terms of the visual connect it forms with the viewer-aptly backed by a heart-wrenching narrative. Accolades like the ‘Audience Award’ at the 2014 San Sebastian International Film Festival and its nomination for the ‘Best Documentary’ category at the 87th Academy Awards are indicative of the enthralling piece of cinematography etched out by co-directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the son of the protagonist of the documentary.
A genesis of the works of four decades worth of clicking photographs of humans who are faced with lamentable conditions, the documentary showcases an aspect of photography by Sebastião that very few have ventured into and have invested their time in; an avenue which elucidates human mortality and suffering. The emotional baggage that each photograph brings with it is what makes the documentary so gripping, sending the viewer in a continual state of musing. His photographs convey a story, one that is engaging and empathetic towards the subject’s distress.
The plot is based on the transition in the life of Sebastião and how he matured as a photographer; empathetic and inquisitive. The initial parts of the documentary deal with the personal life of the photographer and how he was inclined towards photography vis-a-vis the experiences which he indulged in. Progressing into the documentary, we gain an insight of the various projects that Sebastião was involved in- an ethnographic study of the tribes in South America, followed by the grievous scenes of the Ethiopian famine and the horrors of the Rwandan genocide during the 1990s. Exposure to the atrocities that our compatriots faced via the lens of Sebastião’s camera reminds us as to how blessed we are in the grand scheme of things and how superficial and trivial our so-called ‘problems’ actually are.
Having spent time living in the same conditions as that of the affected people, the protagonist recites the horrific scenes that he witnessed while in Ethiopia. It is one thing to hear about it but viewing the same vis-a-vis photographs is a different proposition altogether. Sebastião via his work was able to generate significant public empathy which is one of the predominant reasons why the United Nations was pressured to intervene. The monochromatic photographs were reflective of the inhumane conditions that the people were subjected to; in their minds the grit to overcome any hardship that fell their way.
In the face of the unrest that Sebastião subjected himself to, he was deeply moved by the tormenting scenes. Mentally disturbed by all the pain and misery around him, his photographs were an outlet via which he channeled his emotions outwards to the society. Unlike most photographers, the protagonist considers human emotions as his primary subject, his backdrop being their emotions. Having photographed the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, Sebastião turned his attention to the middle-east which was inflicted with turmoil; numerous oil wells were set ablaze by Kuwait under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Photographs capturing the elation on the faces of the fire-fighters every time they successfully put out a fire or a sense of optimism that perforates through their smog-laden faces was like the rays of the sun on a cloudy day.
The documentary draws to a conclusion with a feeling of helplessness being a stimulus to what the protagonist observes once he returns back to Brazil; large scale deforestation meant that the expansive forests that once formed the backdrop of his initial photographs were now reduced to barren lands. Thus, we observe a stark shift in the focus of Sebastião’s works; capturing the rudimentary brutality of mother nature. In his subsequent works, animals now assume center-stage with the protagonist going to great lengths to capture them in their natural habitats. The spirit of inquisition and perseverance shown by Sebastião rubs off on the viewer, making one question the rationality and practicality of our whims. Seldom do we come across documentaries that really leave an imprint on your conscience. ‘The Salt of the Earth’ is one such documentary that will widen your ability to reason and will instill within one, a sense of maturity of comradery.