Paleo Retiree writes:
Blowhard, Esq. and I just watched this highly-praised documentary about the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, which was co-directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. (For the purposes of keeping father and son straight in this posting I’ll refer to them by their first names.) Sebastião is best known for his socially conscious, reportage-style black and white images from war, disaster and refugee zones. He was a hero to many photographers at the magazine where I worked. They viewed him as what they’d like to be: someone bringing important, concerned news back from crisis zones whose work also has “art” status on its own. Sebastião seemed to demonstrate that you could do good, be a bearer of urgent news AND be an uncompromising artist-with-a-vision all at the same time. That combo of things seemed to be an important fantasy of theirs, maybe even the source of much of their own drive. Sebastião’s images are smokey, dramatic, stark, rich experiences — on the one hand visions of hell akin to medieval allegorical paintings and on the other powerful leftie nightmares that often remind me of Eduardo Galeano’s “Memory of Fire” trilogy of novels. (Hey, thanks to Google I just learned that Galeano died recently.) Sebastião was initially trained as an economist and was headed towards a job at the World Bank when he decided to try to make a life as a photographer, and his education seems to have opened his mind to systems-type thinking, as well as to the importance of work and money in the world as we experience it.
The movie is very smoothly and pleasingly made, if in a solemn mode. It’s beautifully machined — no shakeycam, “reality” baloney or video smeariness here. The visuals and the audio are clear, modulated, and layered. Sebastião, a slim and handsome former hippie who now has a shaven head, is often shown talking over (and occasionally through) his images. I enjoyed these stretches. The stories behind his pictures are often enlightening, and it’s also a chance to experience the workings of the brain of a super-gifted image-maker. Wenders and Juliano take turns narrating the film, with Wenders providing the more informational material and Juliano the more personal stuff. The photographs have great power and beauty, and Sebastião’s own face — the face of a man who has witnessed mankind at its most anguished and agonized — is much doted on. There’s a passage that shows a trip Sebastião made to the Russian Arctic to photograph walruses that’s fascinating for its glimpses of the kinds of lengths some people are willing go to to make great photographic images.
What I didn’t love about the movie is that it slowly morphs from something like a revealing look at the costs of an artistic life into something like the Authorized Version of this particular artist’s inner journey. Early on, the film raises all kinds of interesting questions. The main one is family. How did Sebastião’s devotion to his art and career — which often took him away from home for years at a time — affect Juliano, as well as Juliano’s brother, who was born with Down’s Syndrome? What has it been like to have a father who has spent most of his love, time, energy and passion on his art rather than on his family? We’re told that Sebastião’s wife Lelia has been for many decades a major force in Sebastião’s career, helping choose projects, promoting his work, and even editing the pictures. That made me curious to see something of that relationship. And, if you’re like me, you’re curious about the nitty-gritty of Sebastião’s career and work. How does he get the funds (and the permissions) to go on the road for so long? How do he and Lelia select the final images from the thousands that he shoots? Questions arise from the work itself. Is any processing done to soup Sebastião’s images up? Can all that visual turbulence and drama really have been “natural”? And, as stunning as Sebastião’s pix from disaster zones are, how do we really feel about them? Generally speaking I’m wary of people who want to take news-type subject matter and turn it into art, but for some reason I’m willing to cut Sebastião slack. In any case, I wanted to see him asked about it.
Amazingly enough, while all of this is dangled before us, none of it gets followed up on. Instead the movie turns into a sympathetic-to-the-point-of-worshipful account of Sebastião’s transformative inner journey. Briefly: so much exposure to mankind at its most suffering finally exhausted his spirit; at the same time, his parents died, and Sebastião and Lelia had to return to Brazil to attend to their affairs, which included a ranch that had turned into a dusty wasteland due to drought. Dynamic duo that they are, they started replanting the land with jungle trees, eventually succeeding at turning the property back into rain forest. Thanks to this, Sebastião has had an artistic rebirth, emerging as an environmentalist with a book-and-exhibition of photos celebrating the world’s biological glories.
Not only are the questions the movie raises not followed up on, we get no objective looks at Sebastião. We meet no old friends, no neighbors and no work colleagues who might tell us something about what he’s like to know, to hang out with, or to work with. That episode out photographing the walruses? We’re told that it’s the first time Juliano has accompanied his dad on a photographic expedition, but we never hear from Juliano about how it affected him, and we’re never shown any interaction in the field between father and son. We finally meet Lelia, but we never see Sebastião and Lelia together either. As the movie vanishes — with a slow-motion, exquisite whoosh — up inside Sebastião’s noble and poetic vision of himself, it becomes ever more reverential. Although I’m immensely sympathetic to environmental concerns, I confess that I grew a little weary of watching beautifully composed images of Sebastião walking his newly-fertile land, lovingly touching tree trunks, and looking out over the hills with aging eyes a-brim with reborn hope.
“The Salt of the Earth” kept reminding me of a couple of other documentaries that I watched recently on Netflix. One of them was “Commune,” a shaggy look (directed by Jonathan Berman) at a rural Northern California exercise in anarchistic living. Like many of the ‘60s people whom we meet in the present in “Commune,” Sebastião seems to be nothing if not a self-mythologizing creature prone to seeing his life as a spiritual journey. “Commune,” though it doesn’t have the deluxe, purring style of “The Salt of the Earth,” is much franker about the downsides of its subject matter: kids who resented growing up with hippie parents, people who were driven nuts by the grubbiness of life in the countryside or by the tediousness of making group decisions, that kind of thing. I was also reminded of “Running From Crazy,” Barbara Kopple’s doc about Mariel Hemingway, which — while seeming to endorse an inspiring, even Oprah-ish version of Mariel’s life (girl from a glamorous fucked-up family turned movie star turned do-gooder) — also supplies many glimpses of Mariel as she might be when she’s not at her role-model best: high-strung, willful, neurotic as hell, and not always easy to get along with. There are scenes and moments in “Running From Crazy” that are so frank and revealing that they made me gasp in amazement. Both of these docs struck me as far more ragged, conflicted — and interesting — documentary experiences than “The Salt of the Earth” did.
Still, all that carping and bitching to one side, thumbs basically up: the movie may be New Age, leftie-greenie hagiography, but it’s beautifully made in its own terms, Sebastião is quite a talent as well as an interesting guy, and spending a few hours meeting and learning about him and his work was something I was happy to do. It also made me want to switch my iPhone’s camera settings to black and white and leave them there for a few months. Man, black and white can be beautiful.