Documentary has long struggled with a dependency on still photography. Linked as closely as it is to journalism, history, education and social action, the form has seen many films that require their use. But cinema is the art of the moving image, and incorporating photos in a way that can engage the viewer has proved difficult. The Salt of the Earth tackles this issue in an entirely new way, and that’s just one of many elements that make it one of the most evocative documentaries of the year.
When Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado teamed up to direct a film about Salgado’s father, famed photographer Sebastiao Salgado, they knew that incorporating his work was an absolute necessity, but they had to confront the photos-in-film problem. What Wenders came up with is somewhat similar to Errol Morris’s interrotron: he rigged up a teleprompter-like device that displays Salgado’s pictures over a camera. While being interviewed, the elder Salgado is looking at the photos and at the same time is staring directly into the camera, making eye contact with the audience.
The effect is incredible. The photos are presented simply and directly, projected onto the screen with no movement whatsoever, accompanied by Salgado’s memories of the circumstances around which each piece was taken. At times, a shot racks focus and Salgado’s face comes into view, superimposed over a photo, so that we see both him and his work simultaneously and know both subject and photographer alike. The sheer emotion in Salgado’s eyes make it clear that he’s reliving every moment as he looks at these images, and his words combined with those images are enough to transport the audience. With this method, no panning is necessary — the viewer’s eye is naturally led across the shot by the narration.
And that is the key to appreciating Salgado’s work. Over the course of more than 40 years in the field, Salgado has made a name for himself by going to some of the most extreme places of human activity on Earth and capturing what he sees. A massive gold mine in Brazil. The migrations of people left destitute by famine in the Sahel. Refugees from the Rwandan genocide trekking through a Congo jungle. Before he became a photographer, Salgado was heavily involved in leftist causes, and he carried that sensibility into his work.
But the subject matter is only half of the equation. Where many photojournalists come, snap what they need and leave, Salgado gets to know the people he’s documenting. We see footage of him visiting a remote Amazon tribe, and the speed with which he can make friends out of complete strangers is remarkable. More to the point, he’d spend years on each individual project, getting embedded deep inside each event he was photographing. When he talks about his pictures, he refers not just to their political contexts but of the individuals within them. Even decades later, he speaks of these people with warm familiarity.
This bond may be why Salgado’s portraits of starvation and destitution feel so much more powerful here than they do in most other socially conscious documentaries. It dissolves the news magazine disconnect that causes people to be able to peruse articles containing horrid pictures of human suffering and feel nothing. When Salgado talks about how witnessing the tribulations of the Rwandan refugees destroyed his faith in humanity, the audience may be inclined to share those sentiments.
And yet The Salt of the Earth pulls off another impressive feat by taking a turnaround from despair to optimism and making it feel utterly natural. Once Salgado talks about his Genesis project, for which he visited places and peoples on Earth that are still as they were 10,000 years ago, the doc takes a surprisingly uplifting turn. Salgado and his wife were able to revitalize his family farm, 600 acres that had previously been ravaged to desert by clear-cutting. If this small patch of Earth can return to what it once was, who’s to say that humanity doesn’t have a chance?
There are sections of biography in The Salt of the Earth, but they don’t feel intrusive to the larger concerns of what human beings do to each other and the planet. Rather, they help put us behind Salgado’s eyes, so that we can get a sense of all that he’s experienced in his career, that through seeing a fraction of all the things he’s seen, we can be at least slightly awakened to the wider world around us. And yet at the same time it’s still one man’s story. Wenders and the younger Salgado are, in essence, doing in cinematic form to Salgado what he’s done with photography to so many others, use the camera to see through an image of a person to who that person really is. The personal and the universal are combined in one, the very best that documentary can accomplish.
This review was originally published on November 11, 2014.