It begins with an image of what appears to be an ancient city of towers and walls completely covered with — as you eventually recognize as your eyes focus — hundreds of bodies, as if the structure were actually made of human beings. It is in fact the Brazilian gold mine Serra Pelada, but the masses of miners scrambling up and down its steep face create a kind of accidental surrealism, a flesh-and-mud equivalent to the nightmares of Bosch or Doré's illustrations of Dante's Inferno. Shot in stark black and white, the Serra Pelada is merely the first of many corners of the world, some mysteriously unfamiliar, others painfully recognizable, captured by Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, whose work is explored in The Salt of the Earth.
For more than 40 years, Salgado has traveled extensively making in-depth studies of unusual natural beauty and unimaginable man-made horror. From the Arctic Circle to the islands of the South Pacific, Salgado has photographed Canadian firefighters tackling the blazing oil fields of Kuwait, Saharan villagers suffering under a drought, Third World factory workers and Amazonian villagers whose way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. Trained as an economist, Salgado aims his analytical lens at the most troubled or impoverished corners of the world, frequently emphasizing the struggles of those displaced or destroyed by disaster. At times, the sheer scale of the events — a vast hillside covered with the thousands of small tents of a Rwandan refugee camp, or European streets turned into post-apocalyptic war zones — becomes almost unbearable.
A collaboration between German director Wim Wenders (a distinguished photographer in his own right) and the photographer's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, The Salt of the Earth immerses the viewer in the senior Salgado's work, making his images so prominent that you can't help but absorb them, and also consciously wonder how they were created, how he learned to look at the world. The details of Salgado's life are here, but they're only one part of what the film is trying to convey.
There is an unavoidable strangeness in a film which consists largely of photographs. The viewer becomes more aware of time, more conscious that they're looking at something frozen. We know that a photograph is a moment in the past, but Wenders wants to make Salgado's images present, to jolt us with by their suddenness. But how harrowing they are! Abandoned cars with corpses spilling out of them; sick, starving refugees hiding in forests; funerals for unbaptized infants, their eyes left open so they can find their way to Heaven.
As the years go by the brutality Salgado witnesses seems to escalate, to seep into every culture on every continent. As the 71-year-old photographer relates what he's seen, he seems to grow weaker, almost broken by the accumulation. Ultimately his story — and his work — is not just about images, no matter how skillfully captured: It's about the state of the world, a cry for help on a global scale.
But remarkably, The Salt of the Earth is a film about caution rather than despair. Wenders, like Salgado, wants the viewer to recognize the terrible things that humans do to each other. But the film also offers hope: Salgado is a man who has seen the worst that humanity can dish out but somehow he preserves his admiration for the planet. Without giving too much away, I'll say that in the film's final scenes, we see the photographer at peace and making his own contribution toward restoring the world.
The Salt of the Earth Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders. Written by Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro and David Rosier. Starring Sebastiao Salgado, Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Opens Friday, May 8, at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac.