“You are the salt of the earth,but if the salt loses its savor how can it be made salty again?” Matthew 5:13
The less than two hour documentary “The Salt Of The Earth” lets us bask in beautiful French and Portuguese subtitles while exploring the spirituality and life work of the Brazilian-photographer,Sebastiao Salgado. When Salgado is on screen, he is artistically lighted with his bushy, gray eyebrows and aquiline nose and bald pate asking us to look more deeply. Co-directed by his son,Juliano Salgado, and Wim Wenders,this is a paean to a life of personal self-sacrifice in bearing witness to some of this century’s most horrendous man-against-man violence. Munching on salted popcorn,alone,this was painful. My own spirit became deadened and my popcorn lost its savor. Guiltily,I wrestled with the beauty of the images: Niger 1973, the direct, drought- ridden stare of a woman not finding water; Ethiopia,where Coptic Christians leave the open caskets of dead babies not baptized,their eyes rigidly opened so that they can find their way out of limbo; Sudan 1984, images of starvation in Mali.
Salgado,an economist by training,became an adventurer and a photographer with the support of his wife,Leila. Leaving his family of two sons(one handicapped),Salgado is gone for months at a time. He documents the world with light and shadow,photographing groups of people in beautiful,starkly remote settings. Liberation Theology and Doctors Without Borders inform his awareness, and his images ours. He tells us that his “weapon of choice” is the camera. He states that the power of a portrait lies in the fraction of a second.
In Tanzania 1994: refugees are photographed;in Rwanda, genocide; in Yugoslavia,violence and contagious hatred; in Bosnia, piles of corpses and a schoolroom of skulls. Ten and a half years of travel adds Russia, Calcutta,and Kuwait. Salgado announces that his soul is sick, and so is ours. The recorder of images of devastation turns to nature photography. Here we see frames of shimmering iguana paws,gray surf and brown velvet walruses with white gleaming tusks, silvered-lighted whales and eye -connecting gorillas.
In their book “Genesis 2013”,Salgado and Leila take a positive stance. One half of plant life still exists; they “jumpstart despair”. Returning to Brazil,they become rooted in place,planting more than two and one half million trees on the cattle farm of Salgado’s birth. The land becomes a model for how abused land can be reforested.
While the film can feel like National Geographic on steroids, the artfulness of the photography and the forgiveness and obvious pride of the son and co-director make seeing “The Salt Of The Earth” a thoughtful homage.