The Sacred and the Profane, by David Bax
When a documentary includes narration in the low tones of a German man, our conditioning makes us think of Werner Herzog. But even though Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth contains the stark beauty, endearing oddballs and mankind vs. nature dichotomy of Herzog’s work, the result couldn’t be more different. There’s no sardonic, existential pondering in Wenders’ voice. Rather, and despite the graphic and upsetting nature of some of the imagery, the film is warm, humanistic and even sentimental.
Wenders’ subject is Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian photographer whose famous pictures include those of his home country’s massive, muddy gold mines clogged with men ascending and descending earthen pits via rickety ladders; firefighters in Kuwait working incessantly to extinguish flaming fields of oil set ablaze by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops; and many images of the Ethiopian famine that seared themselves into the brains of the world’s citizens in the 80s and 90s. Wenders and Juliano, the photographer’s son, tell the story of the man’s life, the compassion for people that informs his work, the way that work left him depressed and disillusioned and, finally, how his later life commitment to nature conservation restored him.
One of the film’s visual flourishes is to interview Sebastião through a clear pane of glass and then to occasionally project one of his photos onto it so we can see the man’s face superimposed into the frame he’s discussing. Hearing Sebastião talk about individual photographs with vivid memory and detail is a wonder. Early in the film, Wenders informs us that the word “photograph” means to write with light. One gets the impression Sebastião could have been just as successful writing with plain old words. He’s a natural storyteller.
Most of his stories, the ones told with words as well as those told with light, are about laborers and the poor. Those miners, in particular, are depicted with more than a hint of leftist emphasis on class over individuals. But that’s only an early work a career defined by a pervasive liberalism. He later observes, in discussing his Ethiopian work, that the famine was “a problem of sharing, not natural disaster.” But even in highlighting the worst of humanity, his photographs plea for tolerance, each frame brimming for compassion for the starving, the tired and the dead.
Even while he was taking and publishing those pictures full of grace and empathy, though, Sebastião was being worn thin by what his camera was capturing. After seeing so much of his tender output accompanied by his warm voice, it’s gutting to hear the man reflect on “how terrible our species is.” Eventually, he came to feel that “we didn’t deserve to live.”
Sebastião’s temporary retirement from photography could be heartbreaking but Wenders and Juliano find much of their own most beautiful imagery in these sections. Salgado devoted himself to nature, turning his father’s arid and decrepit farmland into a replanted rainforest. Acres of lush greenery now grow where we once saw footage of emaciated cattle lingering in the dust. Eventually, Sebastião returns to taking pictures, only now they are of landscape and wildlife. There’s a bit of comedy in seeing the man lie in wait with a telescopic lens for a herd of walruses to appear, looking like a sort of Brazilian Sniper. And it’s flat out hilarious when he casually remarks, “I also befriended a whale.” But The Salt of the Earth locates its touching, full-circle conclusion in a brief moment when Sebastião, strolling through one of his greenhouses, stops to take a picture not of the plants but of the people tending to them. He, and we, have found faith again in humanity.