'The Salt of the Earth': Cannes Review

'Salt of the Earth,' Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Un Certain Regard)

Wenders’ 3D drama Every Thing Will Be Fine starring James Franco wasn’t ready in time for Cannes, but Wenders addicts can get their fix with his latest documentary, a portrait of the photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Wenders directed the film together with Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. (Sales: Le Pacte)

A gorgeous look at the man behind all those iconic photographs. 

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado directed this documentary about the latter's photographer father, Sebastiao Salgado.

CANNES – The life and work Sebastiao Salgado, the undisputed master of monumental photojournalism projects in black and white, is explored in The Salt of the Earth, jointly directed by the shutterbug's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and German director Wim Wenders. This is Wenders' first non-fiction feature since his 2011 hit 3-D dance documentary, Pina.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary is filled to the brim with evidence of Salgado’s unique photographic eye and the film's cinematography, often in black and white as well, tries to match the beauty of the subject’s often iconic images. The Salt of the Earth doesn’t reveal so much as gracefully confirm that the empathy and humanism that make Salgado’s photojournalistic work so special are also a part of the artist’s outlook on life. Salgado's sharp observations and enviable joie de vivre -- despite or perhaps exactly because he’s been confronted with decades of bottom-of-the-barrel humanity for his work -- reveal him to be both a great artist and a man of integrity, even as one wonders what toll the years of non-stop work around the globe has taken on his family.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Cannes 2014

This Cannes Un Certain Regard selection is a shoo-in for distribution by high-end boutique distributors in the culture capitals of the world, and both general and non-fiction festivals will want to have this Salt on their timetables as well.

The film opens with what are arguably Salgado’s most famous pictures, shot at the now-closed gold mine of Sera Pelada, in his native Brazil. They show thousands and thousands of workers scaling the gigantic walls of the open-pit mine to take out the ore. As Salgado suggests in interview footage, these photos -- which show thousands of nameless humans piled on top of each other to do their work without the help of any machines -- bring to mind nothing less than truly pharaonic projects, such as the construction of the Tower of Babel, the Pyramids or King Solomon’s Mines. However, as Salgado perceptively notes, unlike the slave workers of antiquity, the humans in his pictures “were only slaves to the idea of becoming rich."

The photographic series seems like an appropriate starting point for a documentary that was mostly shot by Salgado Junior and Hugo Barbier (who worked as a cameraman on Pina) but was co-directed by Wenders, who first came into contact with Salgado’s work when he saw the Sera Pelada images in a gallery. The film then introduces the place where Salgado learned “how to see,” and appropriately switches to color to show the breathtaking green hills and vistas surrounding his grandfather’s farm in central Brazil.

Wenders and Salgado Junior then stick to a more-or-less chronological presentation of Sebastiao’s life, starting with his university years and early career as an economist, his move to Paris in the 1960s (when Brazil was a dictatorship) and then exploring his change of careers with the help of his incredibly supportive wife, Lelia, and his subsequent travels throughout the world that kept him from seeing much of Juliano and his younger brother, Rodrigo, who has Down syndrome. 

The relationship between Salgado -- who has sometimes worked up to a decade on such gigantic photodocumentary projects as Workers, Exodus and Sahel: The End of the Road -- and his director son most clearly comes to the fore in the segment that covers their first trip together, to shoot in hostile Siberia for the photographer's recent book, Genesis, which showcases unspoiled nature. In the awkwardly inserted sequence -- right after Juliano’s birth, jumping ahead 30 years before returning to the film’s overarching chronology -- there’s a sense that Juliano wants to make up for lost time by traveling with his father and doing this project, though, at least onscreen, Salgado mostly talks about the difficulty of framing polar bears. Similarly, Lelia, though clearly a key figure in Sebastiao's private as well as professional life, remains very much in the background.

PHOTOS: The Party Scene at Cannes

The interview footage in which Salgado simply talks about his work is the most insightful and also benefits from a playful, recurring visual motif in which the 70-year-old photographer’s face is blended in and out of the actual photographs discussed. He seems to remember an incredible amount of details about where and whom he shot in the more than 100 countries he visited to document events, ranging from severe droughts and famines in Africa to indigenous peoples in Indonesia or Brazil or workers on the subcontinent.

His left-wing political ideas are clearly motivated by his strong sense of compassion for humankind, saying, at one point, about a famine in the Sahel in the 1980s: "It’s a problem of sharing, not a natural catastrophe." The disasters he’s covered include the human exoduses caused by the wars in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia as well as the burning oil fields of Kuwait after the First Gulf War -- the latter clearly an awe-inspiring visual spectacle for the photographer as well as a man-made disaster.

His work on his last volume, Genesis, is Salgado's most positive work yet, beautifully capturing what the planet still has to offer -- and, implicitly, what it stands to lose -- and here as elsewhere, the photographer’s comments are revealing about what impact it has had on his way of seeing the world: “This is the first time I’ve photographed other animals,” he says in the accented French he employs throughout the film. Almost in tandem, he’s worked with Lelia on a very concrete ecological subject: rebuilding his grandfather’s farm and lands, which had become practically a desert because of erosion and which have since been almost restored to their former glory by the planting of more than two million trees. The decision to turn it from private property into a public space seems entirely in line with Salgado's current work and philosophy. 

Salgado Junior, who occasionally delivers an English-language voiceover, practically disappears from the film’s second half, though Wenders is still present, if occasionally a smidgen too pompous, such as when he suggests that "the land has healed Sebastiao’s despair." Laurent Petitgand’s score subtly incorporates ethnic rhythms and generally has a new age vibe that suits the images beautifully.  

Production companies: Amazonas Images, Solares delle arti
Directors: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Screenwriters: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, David Rosier
Producer: David Rosier
Executive producer: Wim Wenders
Directors of photography: Hugo Barbier, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Editors: Maxine Goedicke, Rob Myers
Composer: Laurent Petitgand
No rating, 109 minutes