April 7th, 2015 | Film | 0 Comments
Salt of the Earth is German director Wim Wenders‘ incredible documentary (co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Selgado) about the life and work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Selgado. The film is the first I’ve seen of Wenders’ documentaries. I never knew that Wenders, like fellow German director Werner Herzog, actually directed a lot of documentaries in addition to his fictional feature films. And not only is Wenders similar to Herzog in that respect, but the two seem to share a fascination with those who live their lives close to edge of human experience. In Salt of the Earth, Wenders’ subject Selgado journeys to remote locations in Africa, the Middle East, South America, Siberia and other places, to study humans and animals whose lives radically differ from the most of ours in the West in their constant proximity to nature, death, and suffering.
Selgado was born on a farm near a small town in Brazil. He went to university to become an economist, and while there he became involved in leftist student politics and met Lelia, the woman who would become his future wife. In the late 60s, he and Lelia fled Brazil for Paris, for fear of political oppression. There, Selgado decided to abandon his work as an economist and become a professional photographer. Though he began this career simply by taking pictures of sports stuff and weddings, he soon garnered attention when he travelled to Africa and later South America to photograph the struggles of those living there, including various native communities in the latter.
After many years of travel and work, including photographing the Rwandan Genocide and the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait, Selgado was exhausted from the sheer amount of human suffering he witnessed. On account of a decline in his father’s health, he returned to his family farm in Brazil. There, with his wife and family, he was able to revitalize the forests surrounding it that had been nearly completely destroyed from years of environmental abuse. The effort inspired him to turn to nature photography, in which he found solace and hope for humanity after years of despair as a result of witnessing so many atrocities.
Between the artistry of the photographs, the study of Selgado himself – portrayed as something of an angelic, Buddha-like old man – and the monumental world events he witnessed, all of which are depicted in the film, Salt of the Earth is at once beautiful, tragic, epic and astounding. I’ve never been a big fan of or expert on photography, but I’m not sure anyone could remain unmoved by Selgado’s photographs as shown in the film, with all the stories and commentary that accompany them. And like Selgado himself, the tone of the film is never overbearing, but calm, understated, contemplative, and of great depth.