"A photographer is someone literally drawing with light. A man writing and rewriting the world with lights and shadows,” says the voice of German director Wim Wenders during the opening sequence of The Salt of the Earth, his latest documentary film on world-renowned photojournalist and photo-documentary artist Sebastião Salgado.
Showing as part of a retrospective of the director's work at the Panorama of the European Film in Cairo, The Salt of the Earth (2014) is co-directed by Salgado's son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Each of the directors gives the documentary a certain richness which is hard to come by.
While Juliano Ribeiro Salgado participates in narrating the story, with intimate shots with his family and is very emotionally invested in the film; Wenders takes a more observational stand-point on Salgado the photographer and the man.
A profound portrait, the film begins as Wenders presents one of Salgado's most iconic series of photographs of the Serra Pelada goldmine in Brazil. Salgado's voice tells us the stories behind some of these photographs, while Wenders shows an image which he himself acquired at an art show prior to knowing who Salgado was, and that to this day it still moves him.
The film takes us through Salgado's beginnings in economics before he switched to being a full-time artist with the continuous support of his wife Leila, moving between his personal life and his photo-documentary projects through Salgado's images and family photos. The narration shifts between Salgado Junior and Wenders, while the artist has an ongoing interview handled with great artistic care.
Salgado's interview is shot in black and white, paying homage to his rich photographic style. However, when Wenders and Salgado Junior join Salgado on his trips around the world, the film takes a colour palette providing a deeper a sense of real time.
The duo accompany Salgado to photograph walruses in Antarctica, to New Guinea to photograph community migration and to the deep part of the Amazon to capture images of an indigenous community not in touch with any towns or cities. In these journeys the filmmakers, along with their subject, manage to capture rare footage, which gives viewers a feel for what it is like to be on the road with Salgado.
The Salt of The Earth also features several of Salgado's most iconic works, such as his documentation of small South American towns and communities entitled 'Other Americas', to his works on migration and displacement, workers around the world and his deeply moving photos in Ethiopia and Mali on 'Doctors without Borders' missions in times of famine.
The film does not simply chronicle these milestones of Salgado's career, but rather gives a deeper perspective on how he sees his work as a photographer, an observer. The film also gives a platform to Salgado to share the stories behind some his works and the effect this had on his marriage and family life.
At one point, Salgado declares a change in career from being a social photographer to capturing the environment which led him to his latest work, Genesis. This point of deeply questioning his role and the human condition as a whole came after spending time in Africa's draughts and being deeply affected by what he encountered there.
“Our history is a history of war. It's an endless story, a story of repression, a tale of madness,” Salgado says.
The film also chronicles Salgado and his wife Leila's project to restore two million trees to the forests in Brazil. While working on Genesis, they returned to his father's land, which was dead, and reforested it. It was turned into a national park called Insituto Terra focused on reforestation and environmental conservation.
It comes as no surprise that Wim Wenders managed to capture the essence of this artist on film, for it has almost become his signature for his documentary work.
In 2011, Wenders also captured German contemporary dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, with a 3D documentary film featuring some of her most important work which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In fact, even though Wenders knew Pina since the 1980s it was only after 3D technology became available that he felt he could really capture this artist.
In 1999 he drew attention to ageing musicians of Buena Vista Social Club, right at the moment they were reunited for an album recording and two concerts with the help of Ry Cooder. The film was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards and will be screening during this current edition of the Panorama of the European Film in Cairo.
While these two documentaries are definitely his most famous at capturing artists, Wenders has more under his belt: Lightning Over Water (1980, on the last days of American film director Nicholas Rey), Tokyo-Ga (1985, on Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu), Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989, on Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto), An Ode to Cologne: A Rock'N'Roll Film (2002, on Cologne rock group BAP) and The Soul of a Man (2003, on several American blues musicians).
While his latest work falls in line with his series of documentaries on artists, Enders is also a masterful fiction filmmaker. His most iconic film – which won Cannes Film Festival most prestigious award the Palme d'Or in 1984 – Paris,Texas will also be screened during the Panorama.
The Salt of the Earth will be screened on Thursday 27 November at 9.30pm at Galaxy Cinema, Friday 28 November at 1pm at Galaxy Cinema and Saturday 29 November at 6.30pm at Zawya Cinema.
Check the Panorama of the European Film programme and our recommendations.
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