Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but Sebastião Salgado’s photography is so gorgeous the only proper response is speechlessness. A stunning combination of brutal honesty and ineffable poetry, the images produced by this Brazilian artist have illuminated the world’s injustice and cruelty, often focusing on the poorest and most imperiled communities. Whether or not you’re already familiar with Salgado’s work, The Salt of the Earth succeeds largely on the strength of his pictures, which are generously presented, often with the photographer offering commentary on their making. The documentary may skimp a little on the man, but his art is proudly front and center—which, one suspects, is perhaps how he’d prefer it.
The film is co-directed by Wim Wenders, who explains early on that he’s long been an admirer of Salgado’s and eventually became his friend. Resembling Wenders’ last documentary, Pina, about choreographer Pina Bausch, The Salt of the Earth is both portrait and appreciation—a biography that’s also deeply emotional and affectionate. (Adding to the affection, the documentary’s other co-director is Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, a filmmaker who’s also Sebastião’s son.) Unlike Pina, though, this new film isn’t a eulogy for a departed soul. Salgado is still very much alive—he recently turned 71—and it’s his gentle, almost melancholy spirit that guides The Salt of the Earth.
Wenders covers the highlights of Salgado’s career, as well as the foundational support his wife of more than 40 years, Lélia Wanick Salgado, has given him. Trained as an economist, Salgado decided to tackle his concerns about inequality more directly by picking up a still camera to document on film the poverty he saw. His life has not been an easy one—he and his family fled Brazil during the military dictatorship, and his second child was born with Down Syndrome—but The Salt of the Earth doesn’t spend a great amount of time plumbing the depths of Salgado’s soul. If there’s a fault to be had with the documentary, it’s that Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado aren’t particularly curious about their subject’s process or sensibility. Perhaps the directors wanted to sustain a bit of mystery, letting the photographer’s techniques remain opaque so as not to ruin any illusion, but it does leave a hole at the center of their story.
Thankfully, the photographs—and Salgado’s driving impulse behind what he shoots—are sufficient compensation. Wenders never quite articulates what about Salgado’s work makes it so striking—The Salt of the Earth avoids explanatory interviews with photography experts or fellow shooters—but, frankly, he doesn’t need to do so. Working in black and white, Salgado sidesteps the potential clichés of the monochromatic format, presenting drama and tragedy not through the lack of color but, rather, with immersion through immediacy, meticulously composed yet unpretentious. A longtime chronicler of Africa’s displaced and suffering, Salgado is an advocate for the voiceless, and so it’s not surprising that The Salt of the Earth has a calm, steady moral anger, nicely complemented by Laurent Petitgand’s understated, mournful score.
Salgado’s son has followed his father on some of his recent outings, and his color footage from those trips is included in The Salt of the Earth. But the documentary is after something more evocative than a simple behind-the-scenes experience. Capturing villagers escaping civil wars or bearing witness to those dying from famine, Salgado has spent years obsessively observing all the ways that people do terrible things to other people. (As he suggests at one point in the film, he has a very dim view of humanity because of his work.)
And so, The Salt of the Earth is a pointed, open-ended question about the toll such a vocation takes on its practitioners. As we’ll learn, Salgado became so demoralized by the horrors he saw that he had to change course radically for a new project, Genesis, which documented the elegance of the natural world. Even in these photos of majestic mountains and tranquil rivers, though, there’s a sadness, a sense that it can’t last. Wenders takes a page from his subject, shooting Salgado in black and white, but he seems to connect with the man’s temperament as well. In everything from Wings of Desire to Buena Vista Social Club, the German filmmaker has resided in a sort of wistful ecstasy, acknowledging the loveliness around him while also recognizing that it’s all so impermanent, flecked with unexpected heartbreak and hardships.
The Salt of the Earth tries to find a happy ending, and it mostly gets there, telling of Salgado’s family’s efforts to create Instituto Terra, a lushly reforested region in overdeveloped Brazil. Amidst those new trees and wildlife, this center stands as a silent act of defiance to man’s inhumanity to man, but Wenders (and no doubt Salgado) know that such measures have to be tempered by reality. In The Salt of the Earth, beauty and terror are never too far apart—one has to learn how to live with both.
Directors: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Writers: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, David Rosie
Release Date: March 27, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.