Back in 1999, Wim Wenders helped a small group of Cuban musicians reach a worldwide audience with his toe-tappingly terrific documentary Buena Vista Social Club. Here’s hoping that The Salt of the Earth, Wenders’ profoundly perceptive portrait of photographer Sebastião Salgado, will do as much to enhance the recognition of its own subject.

As with any artist, it’s likely that many will be aware of Salgado’s work. Over the last 40 years, the Brazilian-born photojournalist has traveled the world and witnessed international conflicts, brutal genocides, and mass suffering, all of which he’s documented in a series of photographic collections. However, unless you’re familiar with the field of photography, it’s unlikely that you’ll be well versed in his career as a whole.

It is in this respect that The Salt of the Earth makes its greatest impact. Wenders’ film takes the form of an interesting and immersive exhibition, juxtaposing sequences detailing Salgado’s early life with sections that allow the artist himself to provide a richly rewarding commentary of his own portfolio. Though the apparition of Salgado’s floating head being occasionally mirrored on top of his photographs is distracting and unnecessary, the artist’s verbal annotations give poignant & philosophical insights in to what motivates him, and how his experiences have helped shape both his work & his world views.

Inevitably, it is the opportunity to mull over the pictures themselves that offers the biggest draw. We open on breathtaking images of the gold mines of Serra Pelada, where tens of thousands can be seen climbing great ladders in order to carry vast amounts of ore out by hand. Before moving on to more deeply distressing scenes of pain and misery, as Salgado movingly discusses his photographing of the drought-stricken Sahel region of Africa and the Rwandan Genocide; although, disappointingly, Wenders neglects to address the ethical issues surrounding the photographer’s focus on human suffering.

Much of what you see is heart-breaking and hard to look at, which makes the asides that follow Salgado as he pieces together his latest project – paying tribute to our Planet’s natural beauty – almost a relief. It is here that the tone changes from one of reflection to rumination, as Sebastião intimately laments on the art of his craft, whilst attempting to capture awe-inspiring footage of polar bears in the wild and Amazonian tribes living in their natural habitat.

What lingers in your mind’s eye though, are the sights of abject agony and the realisation of how hostile humanity can be towards each other. “We humans are terrible animals,” remarks Salgado whilst considering the sight of a mass slaughter. And once you’ve seen what he saw, it’s almost impossible not to agree.

Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders
Stars: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Lélia Wanick Salgado
Runtime: 110 min
Country: France, Brazil, Italy

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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