Home Video Hovel- The Spectre of Hope

Before watching Paul Carlin’s “The Spectre of Hope,” a shortish documentary that ran as a special on the BBC, I was familiar with the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado for two reasons. First, I had a professor in film school who was obsessed with his compositions. Second, his photographs of poor diamond miners were the inspiration for Samuel Bayer’s music video of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The vulgarity and commercialism of Billy Corgan comparing himself to “a rat in a cage” in silver pants while surrounded by extras pretending to be starving workers in virtual slavery is cynically hilarious, especially if you’re aware of the unapologetically political motivations behind Salgado’s images. If you watch this film, you certainly will become aware because “The Spectre of Hope” is about Salgado not in a biographical sense as much as a thematic one.

British writer John Berger is our guide through Salgado’s career. The two of them spend the film looking over albums of Salgado’s photos of some of the southern hemisphere’s poorest people, discussing the experience of documenting them as well as the sociopolitical reasons for their lives being what they are. We spend the film’s 52 minutes looking either at these two men talking or at simple still images.

Berger is the chief reason the film doesn’t work or at least doesn’t work as well as it could. He is strident and condescending – occasionally pedantic – in the way he addresses the audience. His thesis about globalization (and perhaps Salgado’s – he doesn’t let the film’s subject talk enough for us to really know) is unforgivably simple with no nuance or room to budge. Globalization is a scourge, as far as he is concerned, and there is nothing else to it. He explains this to you in such a way as to imply that you are at best stupid and at worst evil if you don’t fully agree. Though he may be dressed in a warm sweater and seated in a charming cottage, he seems at heart to be no more sophisticated in his opinions than the average fifteen year old Dead Kennedys fan.

Salgado’s photographs are powerful, stirringly beautiful and maddening in equal measure. Any one of them is more moving and inspires more cognitive activity than ten hours of John Berger’s smug, deadening lectures. Skip “The Spectre of Hope” and buy a book of Salgado’s pictures instead.

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