Thursday, 13 August 2015

Salt of the Earth

Green Brazilian forest and hillside Salt of the Earth is a documentary on the life and work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. German film-maker Wim Wenders co-directed it with Salgado's son Juliano. I saw it at the French Institute's Ciné Lumière in London.

The Salt of the Earth title refers to humanity. During an award-winning career, Salgada has recorded some of the world's major events with his camera. The film shows many of his still photographs in black and white. The images are both stark and powerful.

Brazilian gold mine
The documentary opens with a blank screen. Then, you see yourself looking down over a large, open-cast gold mine in Brazil. The miners resemble ants. It looks like Hell on Earth - yet that experience is saved for later in the film. The miners at least had the hope a rich seam of gold, as they carried their sacks of mud up ladders in a fast, steep climb.

Infant mortality
One of the most touching early scenes was set in North East Brazil. Infant mortality rates are high. Death is part of everyday life. Coffins-to-rent are lined up against the wall alongside fruit and vegetables for the living. If a child dies unbaptised its eyes are left open. They hope that it will still find the way from Limbo to Heaven.

Juliano speaks of his father as a sort of superhero, who came and went on his photographic adventures throughout much of his childhood. He relished the chance to accompany his father. Together they go to the Arctic to photograph walruses and polar bears. Here, we also see some of the boredom and frustration at having to wait around for the desired shot and composition - never mind the discomfort of having to roll over hard pebbles to ultimately get close enough unseen.

Salgado captures the human spirit battling against seemingly impossible odds. In Kuwait, we see the burning oil wells in 1991. He captures the spirit of Canadian fireman still polishing up their fire engine at the end of a long, exhausting day - even though they know it will be covered with oil and dirt again in the morning. He shows the Kuwaiti royal family's thoroughbred horses driven mad by being left behind, trapped.

We see famine in Africa. A father carries his son only for him to die as they reach the doctor. Salgado shows others who survive, but whose lives and health will still be blighted by the experience. 

African's feet and lower legs standing on barren land

The most powerful shots are of the Rwandan refugees fleeing genocide. Salgado captures many traumatised souls in his lens on their trek between Rwanda and DRC. 210,000 did not make it. Those that did were sent back. He speaks of having to lay down his camera at times in tears. Some pictures are unbearable. He saw the real scenes in motion with his own eyes. He says:

"We [...] didn't deserve to live; no-one deserved to live. When I left there I no longer believed in anything".

Rebirth in Brazil
After the Hell on Earth that was Rwanda, Salgado said he felt sick without being physically sick. It was his wife Léila who raised the family morale. They replanted trees on the barren slopes of the once green family farm. She started something that others copied. The forest and its animals returned.

Together the Salgados created the Instituto Terra. Today, it serves as a testament to the power of the human spirit and nature to recover. 

Karen Andrews runs Anglicity Ltd. She is an entrepreneurial French to English translator, editor, content writer and marketing consultant. 
Contact for further information on Anglicity's services.

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