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The Salt of the Earth - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Salt of the Earth
Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B

The Salt of the Earth is kind of depressing. If you're particularly interested in photography and are familiar with Brazilian "social photographer" Sebastião Salgado, then you'll definitely want to see it. For anyone else, it's a bit of a tougher call. This is the kind of movie whose reception will vary depending on knowledge of the field as well as what real-life horrors one can endure while in a movie theatre.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't exactly on par with holocaust documentaries -- or at least, not all of it is. But in the end, this is about a 71-year-old photographer with decades of experience entrenching himself so deeply in some of the worst world events of the past four decades that he begins to lose his faith in humanity.

Salgado is undeniably a fascinating man, and no one can blame co-director Wim Wenders for wanting to join Salgado's own son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, in accompanying the man on his in-depth photography assignments with a small film crew. He does indeed have a unique approach to photography, spending not just months, but years with his subjects, from African refugees of mid-nineties genocide to industrial workers from around the world to the Zo'é native people of Brazil. At least judging by this film, his subjects gain his trust just by virtue of how much time he spends with them.

Salgado and his wife, Lélia Wanick, worked on several photo anthologies together, which Salt of the Earth presents in turn: Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age profiles just what it suggests; Migrations gets into the photos he took in both Rwanda in 1994 and 1995, and in former Yugoslavia in the later nineties. The film begins with Saldago noting that people, his primary subject for photos, are after all "the salt of the Earth," indicating a certain level of reverence for humanity. But the years spent on Migrations are what disillusion him with people, and a later work done largely in response, Genesis, is a pointed tribute to the parts of the world still in the same condition they were "at the beginning of time." (We'll just cast aside the knowledge that no part of the Earth was the same before any evolution, I guess.)

This takes the film to an ending with a bit more hope, to be sure, but said hope doesn't stand firm when you think about it too much: that other half of the world has still gone to shit, right? And that shit is fast expanding. Or at least, that's the implied worldview here. One might be tempted to envy Salgado and his age, since he'll still have seen the best of the world -- albeit alongside the worst -- before it continues to disappear.

That said, the photos themselves are indeed georgeous -- certainly the Genesis landscapes, but even the war-scarred ones. Salgado notes that you could have a hundred photographers taking pictures of the same thing and still get the same number of different photos. There is no doubt this man has a singular eye.

Although it's fascinating to get some in-depth background to his projects, it likely still works better to appreciate this photographer's eye by looking at actual prints of his photos, rather than on a movie screen. Salt of the Earth also utilizes a slightly distracting technique of cinematography, with Salgado's face superimposed over the prints he's talking about, as he's viewing them. It's a little weird, and just reading about them in a book would make it easier to appreciate his approach. The Salt of the Earth is a decent documentary, but it falls short of greatness by missing its potential as a thorough portrait of the man behind the camera.

Sebastião Salgado's hauntingly beautiful photos get in-depth treatment in THE SALT OF THE EARTH.

Overall: B
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