On paper, the Swiss-made, Indian-set documentary My Name Is Salt sounds like all kinds of grim. Shot with long, slow takes, there are no voiceovers or explanatory interviews to guide understanding as the movie observes an Indian salt harvester and his family toiling ceaselessly in a desert over months with the most basic of tools. And yet, director Farida Pacha and her cinematographer Lutz Konermann manage to disstill this process into something exquisite, a film crystalline in its austere purity, like the commodity of the title. Scooping the prize for best first-feature at the IDFA, this has a solid shot at exposure beyond the festival circuit, especially if it can tap audiences receptive to slow-breath cinema like Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence and Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death.
An epigraph from Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus – “The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” – aptly establishes the theme of recurrent, near absurd effort that, despite the exertion, provides a kind of joy. Like Sisyphus who rolled a bolder uphill every day in Hades only to see roll back down again at dusk, every year the protagonist Sanabhai struggles for eight months to extract salt from hand-dug pans at the Little Rann of Kutch, in Gujarat, India.
Helped by his wife Devuben, their two young children and an elderly relative, Sanabhai digs out the shallow pools, pumps them full of ground water, and then carefully tends the salty ponds until he has a satisfactory crop of salt crystals to sell on to a merchant. When the whole process is done, everything is packed up and carted away. Then the monsoons come and wash the pans away as the desert once more becomes part of the Gulf of Kuchchh. When the waters recede, Sanabhai and his family return and the process begins again, as it has for hundreds of years.
Such is the level of detail here that viewers who pay close enough attention to the process of flooding, raking and trampling down the crystals just might be able to harvest some salt from their own backyard. But few homes outside of, say, Utah, would be as productive or as awe-inspiringly bleak as the desert seen here. A vast arid wasteland that stretches to a horizon broken only by mirages and the odd abandoned bicycle or rusted piece of machinery, it becomes another character in the film, a fickle god that gives but also withholds its gifts. When Sanabhai talks on his cellphone to the salt merchant, it becomes clear how much pressure he’s under, especially given he has to pay upfront for gas to run his pumps. If the salt’s not white enough or the crystals are too big, he’ll get a lower price for his crop and reduce his slim profit margin.
My Name Is Saltin other hands could easily have been made into an expose of capitalist exploitation in yet another corner of the developing world, focusing on the poverty of Sanabhai and his family, their helplessness, their suffering. Instead Pacha and Konermann, who also take producer credits here, have opted for something much more lyrical. With fine-tuned assistance from editor Katharina Fieldler and composer Marcel Vaid (whose light, tinkling score is a delight), the filmmakers evoke the insistent rhythms of the family’s labor. The sound of the pump sets a bass drum beat that’s repeated in the sound of Devuben slapping chapatis flat for the grill, while shuffling of their feets across the salt to break it up adds a faster high-hat tempo. Every one of Konermann’s shots is damn near perfectly composed and balanced. Altogether, and taking into account the company’s strong work on the shorts The Women in Blue Berets and The Seedkeepers, Leafbird Films has marked themselves out as ones to watch.
Venue: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance)
Production: Leafbird Films
Cast: Sanabhai, Devuben
Director: Farida Pacha
Screenwriter: Farida Pacha
Producers: Lutz Konermann, Farida Pacha
Director of photography: Lutz Konermann
Editor: Katharina Fieldler
Music: Marcel Vaid
No rating, 93 min.