Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Top Ten List #4 The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders (left) consulting with Sebastião Salgado


Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (left), his father Sebastião Salgado, and Wim Wenders


THE SALT OF THE EARTH              A-      
France  Brazil  Italy  (110 mi)  2014  d:  Wim Wenders         co-director:  Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

For German director Wim Wenders, it all came down to a photograph that he kept in his office for years, a black and white portrait from the mid 1980’s of a blind woman from Mali conveying a feeling of such profound depth and supreme sadness that it served as a constant reminder of the kind of power and impact that art can have on the human soul.  Shot by Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, this distinctive artistic voice becomes the focus of the film, much like Wenders’ earlier Oscar nominated documentaries BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999) and Pina in 3D (2011), where Salgado literally narrates his life story in a film that examines his life and his work.  The project originated with his son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, one of the principal cinematographers attempting to make a documentary on the life of his father, eventually bringing in Wenders to offer perspective and help shape his overall vision.  The outcome is a work of maturity and profound significance, where the subtle influence of Wenders in helping to choose the photographs by Salgado that moved him the most adds a surprising depth, basically allowing the pictures to tell the story.  Born in the lush hills of Brazil where the rain forest connects to farmland, Salgado earned a master’s degree in economics and began to work for the International Coffee Organization, often traveling overseas for the World Bank, where it was his wife Lélia that introduced him to a camera, forming a working partnership, as she now edits and produces his work.  Developing an interest in photography while working in Africa in the early 70’s, most notably pictures he took in Niger, Salgado studied photography while living in Paris, initially working on news assignments before developing an interest in photojournalism, specializing in social documentary photography of workers in impoverished third world nations.  One of his first assignments was photographing as many as a hundred thousand mud-covered workers, in lines stretching as far as the eye can see, onto rickety ladders plunging into the depths of deep pits in a mammoth Brazilian gold mine called Serra Pelada in the 1980’s, a bleak metaphor for the brutal history of a Dante Inferno human hell on earth, where the unforgettable images resemble the opening Biblical era slave sequences in Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), showing the backbreaking efforts of workers slaving under the hot sun pressed in such close proximity to one another that they resemble ants in an anthill carrying packs of dirt on their backs, climbing up and down the precarious wooden ladders all day.  Because of the use of mercury in the gold extraction, the area is now contaminated and the mines abandoned, leaving a giant open pit filled with polluted water. 

Working on long-term, self-assigned projects that are eventually published as books, Salgado has witnessed some of the most extreme horrors of human experience—war, poverty, greed, famine, genocide, and disasters.  The film is largely a series of photographs shown in what is essentially a slide show narrated by Salgado speaking about the circumstances under which they were taken, reliving a certain autobiographical period of his life, like a film within a film, where the viewer gets the impression Wenders is examining a fellow documentarian reflecting upon his own work.  While there are lovely, poetic touches throughout, the film is a painstakingly meticulous Robert Flaherty style documentation of the bleakness of the human condition as seen through photographs that couldn’t be more sorrowful and mesmerizing, and while the voiceover narration provides perspective, it hardly matches the power of the images.  In the decades of the 80’s and 90’s, Salgado immersed himself into the middle of some of the most brutally terrible and disastrous events of our age, genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, relentless wars, famine, the pitiful human existence in overrun and medically plagued refugee camps, and large-scale environmental disasters like the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait.  Perhaps based on his economic background, he concentrates on how it is always the poor who are the most vulnerable and the worst effected, showing how easily the privileged class remains aloof and a safe distance removed from these catastrophes, where the weakness and ineffectiveness of the world’s response is equally calamitous, as people continue to go about their lives completely unaffected.  While Salgado and Wenders are obviously personally driven, self-motivated, and wildly passionate about their work, it remains an open question what effect, if any, their work has in influencing the rapidly changing world around them.  The global economy has had a remarkable effect internationally, where land and jobs that were once plentiful have dried up and all but disappeared, leaving behind a blighted stain of toxic pollution and personal horrors.  One can’t help but be dumbfounded by the gut-wrenching experiences Salgado continued to seek out, each one more devastatingly bleak and gruesome than the last, where he witnessed one African genocide after another, watching uncountable numbers of people dying right before his eyes, where despite his deep personal commitment to document these images, one of the few who did, the rest of the world inexplicably preferred to look away.  It’s hard to think of another film that makes such a compelling case for making the most out of one’s life, where one man puts himself on the line repeatedly, risking death and deprivation over an extensive period of time, immersing himself in the most horrible war ravaged regions on earth, using only a camera as his voice. 

While it’s hard to know just what drives the man or inspires his work, by documenting Salgado’s efforts with this degree of intense scrutiny, Wenders is immortalizing the power of his art, elevating his own artistic relevance in the process, as if making the case before the world of public opinion.  How can one choose to look away?  Perhaps more than presidents or political leaders, Sebastião Salgado has had an amazing influence on his fellow man, as there are few cameras around to witness human atrocities, few have gone through what he voluntarily witnessed and experienced, adding untold emotional layers of depth through the artistry of his pictures.  One assumes there is a moral imperative behind this work, that the camera has the power to offer a voice to the voiceless, that there is an unmitigated force of good behind every image, as each is so carefully composed in such a distinct social setting.  Who are the disadvantaged that still roam the earth?  Largely invisible in reality wherever they go, so far removed from the mainstream, they resemble the dinosaurs we read about in science books, all but eradicated and extinct in our mind’s eyes, where we’ve lost any personal connection to their “living” lives.  When did their lives start to lose meaning?  It was the documentaries of Robert Flaherty and others that brought these exotic images of people in such faraway places to life, where images we could never conjure up in our limited education and collective imaginations suddenly burst into life onscreen, adding depth and extension to our knowledge, perhaps questioning the playfulness of the filmmaker’s methods, but leaving no doubt as to the cultural accuracy of an ethnically different way of life.  Flaherty’s approach, like Salgado, was to live within an existing community, become familiar with their way of life, and understand their story, so to speak, “before” shooting the pictures.  Who knows what drove Salgado to some of the most extreme places on Earth, spending years on each individual project, like visiting a remote Amazon tribe, having a unique ability to befriend total strangers, becoming embedded within the culture depicted in each individual photograph, where decades later he still warmly remembers not just the context of the photo but the individuals he spent time with.  After three decades, Salgado returns to his native Brazil, retiring to his family farm, united with an adult son he barely knew while globetrotting around the planet, where he undergoes a regenerative rebirth of the spirit, transforming the drought-ridden, dried out lands around him through a major restoration project of building a new rainforest ecosystem, replanting specifically indigenous species native to the region, literally creating new plant life that had died and disappeared, a victim of global climate change, calling it his Genesis project, conceived as a potential path to humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature.  While he may take solace in finding some degree of natural balance, where he can once again walk along the lush grounds, it’s the harrowing images of his life’s work that will remain imprinted in our collective subconscious, where seeing such large masses of war refugees is particularly disturbing, ghostly images of starving children, displaced people trekking across the Sahara, and they are the lucky ones that survived, where Salgado himself was moved to despair, expressing his outrage, “We humans are terrible animals.”  “Everyone should see these images,” he reminds us, “to see how terrible our species is.”  Somber and profoundly meditative, few films leave such a definitive cinematic impact afterwards.

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