Watching a documentary can be a powerful experience. A good documentary does what any good film does – entertains, educates and makes you feel something. Of course, a documentary is usually more concerned with the last two of those three, but if it does them well, the entertainment value will inevitably be part of the mix. It's also worth noting that the documentary has the impact of truth and reality on its side. Few feature films can match the raw emotional power of a well-done documentary about a compelling subject – especially one that relates to the lives of the audience. You get all of that with "The Salt of the Earth" (PG-13, 1:50), a 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature.
The film traces the career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, a man whose initial career path was about as far from the arts as you can get, but nevertheless has made an indelible mark on the way we see the people and the lands that are part of this planet we all share. Salgado started studying law in college, but switched majors and ended up getting a master's degree in economics. He began using his wife's camera to document his travels in Africa on missions for the World Bank. Soon, he and his wife, Lélia, both came to realize that Sebastião could have a bigger and more positive impact with his life by using his obvious natural talent as a photographer, showing people both what was right and what was wrong with the world in which we live. With his understanding of economic conditions and global trade informing the projects he chose for himself, he went from working as a photojournalist to being part of an international organization of photographers, to striking out on his own, with Lélia as his main supporter, his chief adviser and his primary photo editor. Famed gallery curator Hal Gould has said that Salgado is the most important photographer of the early 21st century. To learn Salgado's story is to discover that statements like that one are difficult to dispute.
Salgado's photo projects often lasted years and flowed organically, one into the next, based on his interests and the things he learned along the way. In this documentary, we see him discover the lesser known areas of his native South America (and into Central America) for his project "The Other Americas". The poverty and desperation that he uncovered led him to explore a part of the world with similar problems, the Sahel region of Africa, a continent to which he would make many trips in his career. These experiences led him to other long-term projects, documenting "Workers" all over the world and then helping to publicize the plight of refugees in "Migrations". This latter project and his ongoing interest in Africa resulted in Salgado covering the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. The horror he witnessed caused Salgado to put down his camera, but his contributions to helping us all understand our world through his photography did not end there. In fact, not only would he pick up his camera many times in the years to come, but he and his family have ended up making contributions to the planet that may have a much bigger impact than the photos that he has shown in galleries and published in books all over the world.
"The Salt of the Earth" was directed by two men who can only be seen as the perfect team to bring Sebastião Salgado's story to life. Wim Wenders, a previous Oscar nominee for his documentaries "Pina" and "Buena Vista Social Club", brings his experience and expertise to this film, not only as a lauded documentarian, but also as a photographer. Wenders' co-director is none other than Sebastião Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who tells his father's story through the eyes of someone who grew up enduring his father's extended absences, but as an adult, began to accompany Sebastião on his globe-trotting adventures.
As Juliano narrates and shoots Sebastião's story and Wenders procduces, we see a man apply his impressive intellect not to making himself rich, but to enriching our understanding of the world in which we live – and how we can make it better. We see a man who once sported a bushy beard and a twinkle in his eye transform into a man whose face and head are devoid of hair and whose impenetrable eyes belie the emotion that occasionally cracks his voice as he talks about his experiences. We see a man of uncompromising artistic integrity and a seemingly bottomless well of personal energy and concern for the earth and its inhabitants. In short, we see a small portion of a unique body of work and we get to know the man behind those photographs and other projects that make him so unforgettable.
This film steers clear of the frills of many documentaries and lets the photographer's stark black and white images speak for themselves, many on screen for a brief moment when the camera seems to move through them to reveal the face of the man telling the stories behind the photos. This film starts very slowly and never gets to a point that one would describe as exciting, but there is no denying the impact of the images, the stories they tell and the singular importance of Sebastião Salgado, the man behind the camera. "B+".
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