REVIEW: The Salt of the Earth

In a documentary about a photographer, it’s easy to let the subject’s body of work take over the film’s central focus, and there are times in The Salt of the Earth when director Wim Wenders fills the screen with Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado’s powerful images and allows the ‘gallery’ to play out, with one image serenely fading into the next. Luckily, though, Wenders balances this with a thorough exploration of Salgado’s expeditions and the passion that drives him, intercut with first-hand commentary on the remarkable imagery from Salgado himself.

The film opens with a fairly standard (in documentary terms) account of Salgado’s beginnings growing up on a farm in Brazil, becoming a student of economics, and later moving to Europe with his wife. It was here that he ‘stumbled upon’ photography, and made the gutsy decision to dedicate his career, and life, to this newfound passion. Nobody could have guessed where it would take him, and the impact that his work would have.

Strangely, early-on in the film, Wenders decides to break the fourth wall and the documenting of him and his crew documenting Salgado is remarked upon; this is perhaps, as Wenders asserts, due to Salgado’s discomfort in front of the camera (‘I got a good shot of you, too!’) and divulges to us the photographer’s dignified, unassuming nature.

The story then unfolds to delineate Salgado’s journey across continents, through spates of long trips, and the underlying tale of estrangement from his children as a result. Considering the film was co-directed by his son, and allusions to his ‘rediscovery’ of his father are made during their Arctic trip early on in the film, more of a focus on their relationship (and a little more of Juliano’s perspective) perhaps could have benefited the narrative.

Wenders, at this point, takes us through an exhaustive and unremitting consecution of photographs from Salgado’s archives, which chronicle humanity in some of its ugliest forms; African genocide, starvation, the Kuwaiti oil fire and mass-migration are some of the contexts of the images outlined by Salgado’s commentary. This part of the film is not for the faint-hearted, and reveals the overall power and scope of the medium itself.

Ethiopia, 1984
Ethiopia, 1984

An extended monochrome talking-head interview with the subject plays behind the stills of Salgado’s nuanced and prodigious photographic career, and it’s through these that we really get to know this articulate, soft-spoken character. A lot of the rawness of the film comes from his direct emotional reaction to his photographs as they are shown to him, and he recalls each of his experiences with gentle, honest ease, giving us a window into the remarkable history which lies beneath the images.

Juliano Salgado commented on the decision to film his father in this way:

“We got him enclosed in a little room with black paper. In front of the camera, there were [projected] photographs. He would react to them. He would remember what had happened to him. He was confronted with his own images and lived his own emotions back. It was so powerful that in some places in the film, for instance in Rwanda, he could only bear to stay there for five minutes. That segment is almost real time. Suddenly, his subjectivity becomes an emotion that you feel.”

At one point, Salgado’s relaying of his experiences leads him to affirm:

“We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.”

When working in Rwanda and witnessing such brutality, through the extensive suffering of its people and thousands of deaths per day, Salgado became very ill and returned to his home in Paris. He had lost his faith in humanity.

This led to his breakdown, and subsequent return to Brazil. The redemption of his faith came in the form of the re-planting and restoration of his family’s farmland, which makes up the concluding section of the film. This proves to be the story arc that makes the documentary, with Salgado’s passion for the land and the flourishing of the nature reserve on which it now stands giving the final act a much-needed uplift through the metaphor of the assertion of man’s ability to rebuild; grow; make reparation. This message of hope is communicated through the photography of Salgado’s final monumental collection Genesis, which chronicles humanity’s connection to nature ‘from the beginning’.

The Salt of the Earth does justice to its fascinating subject, due to Wenders skilfully giving the photographs the respect and focus they deserve whilst painting a nuanced picture of the man behind the camera, and his courageous spirit. Although at times it’s certainly not an easy watch, its message of hope in humanity’s (and nature’s) integrity prevails, thanks to Salgado’s final, beautiful ‘love letter to the planet’.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in north-eastern Alaska is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, covering no fewer than six ecozones and stretching some 200 miles (300 kilometers) from north to south. Along its northern coast, barrier islands, coastal lagoons, salt marshes and river deltas of the Arctic coastal tundra provide a marvelous habitat for migratory water birds. Coastal land and sea ice are sought by caribou seeking relief from insects during the summer and by Arctic bears for hunt-ing seals and breeding during winter. This photograph was taken in the eastern part of the Brooks Range, which rises to over 9,800 feet (3,000 meters); the rugged stretch of mountains is sliced by deep river valleys and numerous glaciers. The immense variety of microclimates results from the collision of cold air from the Arctic and hot air coming from the Yukon River  region of central Alaska. Alaska. USA. June and July 2009
Alaska, 2009

The Salt of the Earth is in cinemas now.




When presenting a tragedy in documentary form, whether it be a case study of a tragic life which ended too soon, or the relaying of an event in which many people lost their lives, the only way that the story can be successfully told is if the film-maker remains as objective as possible and shows us the events in a fair and unbiased way. The audience is there to make up their own minds about the information which is presented to them, and Amy fails on this at the first hurdle.

Instead, we are treated to the utter demonization of Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, and ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. This demonization comes in the form of excessively repeated instances of ominous music played over slowed-down footage of a shifty-looking Mitch (who may as well have ‘NEGLECTFUL FATHER’ stamped across his forehead) and close-ups of Blake’s drug-addled, mottled face, whilst Amy’s lyrics float across the screen, like sad little symbols of foreshadowing.

That’s not to say that they had no part in her demise, but the fact that their contribution to the unfolding of such tragic events has essentially been made into a film is troubling. And misses the point. Winehouse was such a pure and magnetic talent (who ‘should be regarded along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday’, as Tony Bennett puts it at the end of the film), yet the juxtaposition of this talent with a life of depression, drug addiction and alcoholism should have been handled with much more sensitivity and much less finger-pointing.

In fact, Amy’s music and rise to fame almost seems to be happening in the background of this film, and we only really get to marvel at, and celebrate, the purity and uniqueness of her talent in the film’s opening, through recordings of early-on performances. Once Amy moves to Camden and encounters Blake, Asif Kapadia chooses to almost exclusively focus on (and sensationalise) her breakdown, in the same way that the paparazzi did when she was alive. And although he doesn’t explicitly state whose fault Amy’s drug addiction was, we get Blake shakily admitting to introducing drugs to Amy in a voice-over interview, and so Kapadia oh-so-gently nudges us to blame him.

If we compare this to the recent Kurt Cobain biopic Montage of Heck, which presents a similar story, you could take the feeling of unease which Brett Morgen’s documentary musters and multiply that by about twenty. At least Montage made some effort to remain impartial by taking an amalgamation of home footage and interviews and putting it on the screen in (what seemed like) a sincere and tasteful way. Even Courtney Love came out of it looking OK. Amy feels more like the unofficial trial of Mitch and Blake with a jazzy soundtrack accompaniment.

Never have I seen a documentary which completely jettisons subtlety in favour of sensationalism, and the exploitation of the audience’s emotion, to such an extent. Even watching the film purely to appreciate Winehouse’s talent is a waste of time, because by the end you will feel so uncomfortable that you probably won’t want to hear another Amy Winehouse song for quite a while.