Follow by e-mail

Friday, 31 July 2015

Passing the salt : Sharing the vision of Sebastião Salgado

This is a review of The Salt of the Earth (2014)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

31 July

This is a review of The Salt of the Earth (2014)

For The Salt of the Earth (2014) (#TheSaltOfTheEarth : the official web-site is, it was a real pleasure, for a change, to be in Screen 2 at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse (the intermediate size of screen)). Even more so to be able to see Sebastião Salgado’s photographic images, projected on a screen of this size, and appreciate their quality.

A recommendation from Jordi Torrent (@nycjordi) as well as this one from Mark Cousins (@markcousinsfilm) had ensured that one would have to make time to see Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s (his son’s) film :

Yet seeing Salgado’s photography (as one can judge that Cousins must partly be saying) was only a fraction of the experience, for, in his gentle words of commentary, in clear, beautiful French, there was a double pleasure for the ear : both to understand what he had seen (and how, with his camera, he had been able to let us see it), and to hear the poetry that was such an element of his description. In fact, it was hardly mere description, which might have added but a little, but an immensely enriching illumination of his artistic vision, which brought us into experiencing his work more deeply :

Whether, with Wenders, leafing through loose prints (or unbound pages from his books of photographic collections), or speaking as they were shown full size on the screen, Salgado feels like a kindly but serious relative, earnestly talking us through the time that he spent with the people whom they show, so that we can relate to them (or, in later work, to broader scenes) : there is compassion in the way in which he helps us understand his work, from the individual histories of those dying* (or dead) in Sahel (19841986) to those Trying their luck in the combined wonder and horror of a Brazilian gold-mine (his first allusion to Dante’s Inferno** ?), in a country where coffins are for rent. (We see a body simply lying at the bottom of a grave.)

One could not have imagined that there would be such power to be had in hearing Salgado as we looked at his photographs, and it is at the centre of what gives the film its strength (alongside voice-overs, of a more explanatory nature, from Wenders and Juliano Salgado), and makes it a living creature : not for the first time, one likens it to the afternoon at CRASSH in Cambridge (@CRASSHlive, The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), when we had the unknown factor of Murray Perahia, talking The Doric String Quartet (@doric_quartet) through playing the Cavatina of Beeethoven’s Strinq Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 130, and where we found 1 + 4 = > > 5 to be true.

Only a little eerily (because not aiming at the uncanny, but rather causing us to hesitate as to whether we were really seeing this), it is in commenting on the place by the church in Brazil (where, other than coffins being for rent, many items are on sale) that, for the first time, Salgado’s face appeared to emerge from an image : face and image had, of course, been graded as to texture and tone to match, so that he appeared within it, and it was a telling effect sparingly used to show how he had participated in the life that he has photographed.

Likewise, of course, and worthily of a film about Salgado’s photography and life, the cinematography (by Hugo Barbier, and Juliano Selgado) is excellent. Not that (and one would not want it to be) it is mimetic of the former, except as to its quality, if only for this simple reason, which Salgado gives right at the beginning of the film, when he is being observed, sitting at the top of a high point in his native Brazil, looking out, and taking photographs :

The premise (too little realized, and of which he reminds us) that, because especially at this level of artistry one is drawing with light (the exact meaning of the word ‘photography’), a number of photographers, put in front of the same scene, would produce several different ways of picturing it.

At the risk of seeming to say too much more about the how, rather than the what, one must mention Laurent Petitgand’s music, which, as one would expect from such a film, is subtle and is fully assimilated into the work itself : at first, what sounded like cello and quiet pulsing from an electric guitar, and then, when Salgado is with the Yali people of Papua New Guinea (in 2011), there is also a little percussion, and a hint of piano.

Then, at a tender moment***, when father (Sebastião) is leaning on son (Juliano) to be steady to try to get some shots of walruses (as the latter accompanies the former to come closer to his life and work), gentle xylophone****. Throughout, the scoring is absorbed / integrated into the film as a whole (with its employment of aspects of sound-design, with distorted chimes, echo, metallic timbres).

As to Wenders and Salgado, the film begins where the former began knowing about the latter, with the scale of those shots from the gold-mine (one of which was what Wender first saw**), and with Salgado telling us about this place, and us seeing him in Brazil, and then on location in Papua New Guinea, candidly photographing people who, amidst what appears to be their celebration / ceremony, look at images of themselves on the screen of his camera. Using photographic portraits, Wenders takes us through Salgado’s early life, student times*****, move to Paris with Lélia, and their decisive choice for him to leave his background in economics (and a post with The World Bank) and devote himself to professional photography, a career that has brought us significant titles, of which the principal ones are :

[The] Other Americas (19771984)

Sahel : The End of the Road (19841986)

Workers (19861991)

Exodus (Migrations) (19931999)

Genesis (20042013)

At the same time as following, in sequence, the making of these publications (the last two titles belong, respectively, to the second and third lives / planets / movies to which Mark Cousins refers (in his Tweet above)), we have Lélia, supporting Sebastião’s work, and bringing up their sons Juliano and Rodrigo a far cry from the dramatic notion that a recent film wants to bring us of a photographer of world events / situations (an unfavourable memory of which was evoked by some stages of his career : better points of connection can be found in In A Better World (Hævnen) (2010) and [at least in portraying civil war / genocide] Half of a Yellow Sun (2013))) :

Whether telling us about the courtoisie of gorillas, and how they will welcome one (if one respects their terms), or of a dead cicada, being incorporated into a tree, Salgado is always making observation about the world.

However, about mankind (and following Workers (subtitled Archaeology of the Industrial Age)), he says (from seeing what happens in the former (supposedly civilized) Yugoslavia) We are extremely violent : indeed, his final experiences in Rwanda (having seen previously how Hell was taking the place of Paradise) led him to see it as the edge of darkness (and to retire from taking images of this aspect of the world).

(At an earlier time, perhaps, he had been able to take heart, travelling 300 to 400 miles on the back of a truck (from Sahel ?), in two men, friends, who were pretending that it was a Sunday afternoon. Yet, as an economist who could see how governments were starving the people whom he saw, he knew early that their suffering was not un problème de portage.)

In passing, where the film ends has already been alluded to*****. In talking about Salgado’s time with the Yali people, it has likewise been mentioned that they looked at his images (not seeing a sinister taking of their souls), and he later says, about taking a photographic portrait : the subject makes an offer to you, to take a glimpse of that person’s life.

In putting Salgado, talking (or silent, reflecting), on the screen, Wenders breaks with ‘the industry standard’ of how to shoot an interview, and puts him right in the centre of the frame. Salgado is offering us a glimpse of him, and, by being filmed in this setting / lighting******, Wenders / Juliano Salgado and the crew graciously accept his offer.


* Often, we are informed, as a result of cholera, from the massive weakening caused by diarrhoea (and the resultant dehydration) and then being susceptible to other infections.

** And a photograph from where was his first point of connection with Wenders, when he bought a print of it, and then another, which hauntingly hangs over his desk, of a woman (the fourth image on this web-page).

*** One is reminded of some of Sokurov’s films, such as Father and Son (2003) (and Mother and Son (1997)).

**** Later in the film (but chronologically earlier, as it is in Kuwait in 1991), with Salgado’s compulsion to spend time alongside fire-fighters from Calgary and partly, as he tells us, damage his hearing from the sheer sound the volume of the soundtrack, and its presence, are necessarily greater. (Translated, Salgado calls this scene, with around five hundred oil-wells that had been set on fire when Saddam Hussein's forces withdrew, A giant stage, the size of the planet.) Further on, there is glockenspiel, but cello (sometimes with tremolo, and also using echo) is a mainstay of Petitgand's score.

***** We hear what Salgado’s father, calling him Tiao, says about his son when younger, and we see where the family farm is, and what has happened to it, as soil erosion has been caused by farming the land with cattle, leading to a lack of plant-life to hold back the flow of water. (Later, we see the relevance, with the founding of the Instituto Terra, and the planting of more than two million indigenous trees.)

****** In the hide, before father and son drowsily succumb to sleep (and after the polar bear has frightened away the walruses), Salgado says, about the bear on the endless shingle, that it does not make 'a well-framed photo', because there is no action, anything. The set-up for filming Salgado's face precisely makes it a well-framed image, respectful of him : who he is, and what he does.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

No comments: