Bringing Life to a Film About Photographs—and Healing a Father-Son Relationship
The Salt of the Earth, a documentary portrait of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado made by his son Juliano and German director Wim Wenders, harkens back to Wenders’ roots in New German Cinema. However, Sebastiao doesn’t seem like the hero of one of Wenders’ 1970s road movies, but an adventurer out of a Werner Herzog film. He has traveled the globe, collecting images both of poverty and natural beauty, and currently works on replanting the Amazonian rainforest. The Salt of the Earth is fairly simple, in some respects; at least half the film consists of a procession of Sebastião’s photos, shown as he explains the experiences that led to them. However, it follows a clear narrative: the photographer becomes a depressed misanthrope as a result of the misery he observes in Ethiopia and Rwanda and finds redemption back home in Brazil. To Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s credit, this journey never feels pat; Sebastião’s despair was obviously deeply felt, and the film’s beautiful rendering of his black-and-white photos does justice to it. Earlier this month, StudioDaily spoke with both filmmakers.
Pictured, top, left to right: director Wim Wenders, director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Sebastião Salgado; photo by Thierry Pouffary, courtesy of Thierry Pouffary/Sony Pictures Classics
Watch a clip from The Salt of the Earth:
SD: Were you influenced by [Sans Soleil and "La jetée" director] Chris Marker in your use of still photos?
Wim Wenders: I’m influenced by Chris Marker as a documentary filmmaker, period. Chris is one of the great independent filmmakers of the 20th century and, in many ways, used film language like no one before him. But I don’t think he was a particular influence for the use of photographs because, from the beginning, I made it clear that I only wanted to use them full-frame. No zooms, no details. The screen, of course, is a bigger version of all these photographs than anyone had ever seen, and we took really good care that this was the best possible image quality. Even Sebastiao, when he saw how the lab had worked on these digital files and put the amount of detail into every picture, was really impressed. He said, “I saw things even I have never seen before.”
SD: What kind of camera did you use?
Wenders: I shot with a Canon C300 — we used different ones, but it was always a Canon. I didn’t use film because I shot very long takes, sometimes lasting an hour.
Director Wim Wenders; photo by Sebastião Salgado and © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images
SD: Was it easier to get Sebastiao to warm up to you because your co-director was his son?
Wenders: We never shot together. Juliano shot all those journeys with him, to the Arctic and the Amazon. I shot the interviews with him and some footage in Brazil. Being in front of his son’s camera was an extremely different thing for him than being in front of mine. And he’s an extremely camera-shy person. We became friends before the shoot. We had dinner together and saw some soccer games. So we knew each other relatively well before we started. He had agreed to tell me the stories behind all his photos. His way to survive being in front of the camera was to have a camera, too. Whenever he was too self-conscious, he took a photo. For him, that was a defiant act.
SD: So you’ll be featured in his next photo book?
Wenders: Well, we cut a couple of his reverse angles into the film. But I don’t think we’ll be featured in a photo book. For one thing, he’s given up photography. If he’s photographing today, he’s photographing nature. He has a new project working with the indigenous people of the Amazon to convince the government to make them the caretakers of the last huge, untouched Amazonian rainforests that are left. He’d rather photograph them than white fellows with cameras.
SD: The film actually has a fairly conventional narrative arc. If Sebastiao had remained depressed and hadn’t gotten involved in replanting the forest, would you have been interested in making a film about him?
Wenders: In the editing process, when we slowly worked our way to a two- or three-hour rough cut, I realized I could not have possibly wanted to end a film with that defeat and depression Sebastiao had with his own life and humanity. The total breakdown he went through in the genocide in Rwanda would not have made a good ending.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: I probably would. What Sebastiao has to say about humanity and his experiences is really important. When I first thought about the film, I didn’t realize there was this dramatic arc. I found it out two years after we started planning the film. From the beginning, I thought there was a lot to be learned from the sum of his experiences. Of course, we couldn’t have finished it in Rwanda, because it’s too much of a terrible, hopeless place. It wouldn’t have been half as beautiful as it is now, because it shows the clarity of Sebastiao’s life. It has a true and mature gaze on the world. It’s not saying the world is something other than what it is: sometimes cruel and barbaric. It’s a difficult place, but knowing all that, there's still reason to hope and something we can do about it. That message is very powerful.
Photo by Sebastião Salgado; © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images
SD: His photographs have been accused of being too beautiful for the subjects they portray. Because of these criticisms, did you want to explain them and have him put them in the context they came from?
Wenders: I thought that’s such an obsolete discussion: how beautiful is a photo depicting misery and suffering allowed to be? It’s an absurd trick. What is the alternative? That’s the only question that comes to my mind. Making no pictures? You can always discuss where you can go with a camera, but anyone can go anywhere with a camera, and in that case, I hope that someone goes with a knowledge of framing and an aesthetic, because a beautiful picture pays a lot more respect to its subject and returns dignity to them. The reproach of making “too-beautiful photos of despair” has no alternative, because no one’s going to look at ugly pictures.
SD: Also, making ugly pictures is still an aesthetic choice.
Wenders: I don’t know if it’s an aesthetic choice. If you take an ugly picture, do you really like it? If you like them, you necessarily have to to represent them in an aesthetically satisfying way. I think this discussion leads nowhere. I’ve never heard this discussion except as a quote, like you did: “some people say…” I’ve never run into anyone who actually believes it.
SD: I don't agree with it, but I think Susan Sontag criticized him for it.
Wenders: I think Susan Sontag was very impressed with his photography, and she was quoted out of context and took it back at some time. Even Sontag would have to answer the question: “What is the alternative?” If the alternative is not to take a picture, maybe in the ’80s or ’90s one could have discussed that alternative. There is no more place where people can’t take pictures.
SD: You’ve done quite a few documentaries about music. What attracts you to your subjects?
Wenders: There are several reasons to make a documentary, almost as many as there are documentary fllmmakers. Each of us has our own in-built ethos out of which we act and decide to make a film. My own reason to start a film has always been utterly spontaneous. Something comes about from one day to another. I like something so much I want to share it. I heard a rough tape of the Buena Vista Social Club on a crummy cassette from Ry Cooder. I don’t know who their musicians were. He played me an unmixed tape when he came back from Havana the first time. I said, “Wow! This is really intoxicating music. Who are these kids?” He said, “Well, they’re not really kids. They’re all in their 80s.” At that point, I knew I was going to make a movie. If these really were old people, I needed to share this music and make sure it was heard by as many people as possible. My documentaries are driven by a desire to spread a virus.
SD: With Buena Vista Social Club, their album wound up selling more than half a million copies in the U.S. after your film came out.
Wenders: It sold seven million worldwide. Before the film came out, it had sold a couple hundred thousand. Luckily, it was released by a decent record company, so the musicians earned a lot. The next time I visited [Buena Vista Social Club singer] Ibrahim [Ferrer], he lived in a house in Havana and I was impressed that he had a TV set and refrigerator—even though most of the time they didn’t work, because electricity was still a problem. He said, “Yeah, I like having a TV and refrigerator, but come out and see.” All his neighbors knew and greeted him. He bought them all TV sets and refrigerators. The entire street had refrigerators that worked for two hours a day!
SD: Was the film distributed in Cuba?
Wenders: Much later. At the time, there was only one screening for a selected audience, all members of the Communist Party. Friends of the band couldn’t get in. I was quite furious that it wasn’t open to the public. A few years later, it was secretly copied and people had DVDs. Finally, Fidel changed his politics and acknowledged the band’s existence and sent telegrams to them when they played. It eventually became publicly available, but not right away.
Photo by Sebastião Salgado; © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images
SD: [To Ribeiro Salgado:] I was interested to learn that you and Wim didn’t work simultaneously. How did you decide on splitting up the work?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: It was very simple, actually. From the beginning, it was clear that what was really important about Sebastiao was what he had to say about the world. The film had to be about his experiences of humanity in order to say something his photos don’t. That’s very rare—the sum of experiences he’s gone through. I thought it had to be in the center of the film. We needed to find someone else to collaborate with. Sebastiao and I had a difficult relationship at the time. The idea of collaborating with Wim was perfect in that respect. He was there most of the time. We decided he was the ideal person for interviews. He actually did much more than I was hoping for. He made this film his, completely, but from the beginning, the interviews had to be done by Wim. Wim was also fascinated by the Terra Institute and the fact they had planted so many trees. So he was going to do that as well.
I went to Brazil and filmed a lot of things and found out the symbolic relations of going back to the land. I was exploring that area. We scripted the sequences where Sebastiao speaks about his early life and how he learns about the role his camera can play in society in bringing some social awareness, how it breaks down and how he reconstructs himself, We knew about all that. There was a shape to give to the story. Selecting his reportage carefully, through Sebastiao’s voice, allowed us to understand his trajectory and accept what he says about humanity. The surprising thing is that when Wim started filming Sebastiao, they had three or four cameras going with photographs in the middle. It was really dull. Sebastiao was self-conscious. This is the genius of Wim. He brought Sebastiao to a studio. We got him enclosed in a little room with black paper. He couldn’t see the crew. In front of the camera, there was a teleprompter, but actually there were photographs. The photos were projected. He would react to them. He would remember what had happened to him. And at some points, when Wim felt Sebastiao got to the end of what he had to say, the photo would change and a new one would appear. And the next and the next. He couldn’t hear any of us. He was confronted with his own images and lived his own emotions back and remembered his own images. It was so powerful that in some places in the film, for instance in Rwanda, he could only bear to stay there for five minutes. That segment is almost real time. Suddenly, his subjectivity becomes an emotion that you feel. That’s how lucky we were to work with one of the great masters of cinema.
SD: Was your trip to the Arctic the first time you’d accompanied Sebastiao on one of his trips?
Salgado: It was not, actually. I had accompanied him when I was a teenager a few times. That was when we started to have a difficult relationship. I was 15 when we went to India and 16 when we went to Rwanda. Rwanda was actually at the beginning of the repression against the Tutsis. We didn’t know about that. It was very dangerous, but we didn’t know that till we were already traveling there. I was confronted for the first time with someone dying. He was a friend of Sebastiao. It was very tough. Sebastiao told me many times that he felt guilty that he’d taken his 16-year-old son to this place. When we traveled again, we had a very distant relationship. It’s not always easy, but the first trip for this film was actually visiting the Indians at the end. But for reasons of the way the film progresses, we used the Arctic as the first trip.
SD: Do you still have the same sense of him as an old-fashioned adventurer that you had as a kid?
Salgado: I think he is. He’s one of the last great travelers. He goes beyond the geographical limits to places few people go. He always manages to make bonds with the people he meets. In Papua New Guinea, we had to travel a few hours in a plane, then in this tiny airport in the middle of nowhere. We walked for two days to get to this village. In the space of 10 minutes, Sebastiao is taking photos. Some kind of communication is happening. He’s showing them their photos. The bond is created very quickly, with guys who couldn’t be more foreign and distant from us. That’s the way he travels. He knows how to do it. He has all those qualities needed. I think today, photographers—more than filmmakers or any other artists—are the real adventurers. A camera allows us to cross many taboos and social barriers. It’s such a light device that it allows you to bridge many boundaries. Through their art, they can allow us to cross these barriers.
SD: Was it ever tense or uncomfortable making a film about your father?
Salgado: No, it wasn’t. As I told you, we had this tense and difficult relationship at the beginning. I had to overcome that. We did it together, with him playing a role. There were several defining moments. The first one was coming back to the strip with the Indians. I edited a little short with those images I had filmed of him. You see a lot about the person in front of the camera. You also see a lot about the person who’s holding the camera, because they reveal their thoughts, their emotions. It comes through in your choice of angles. When I came back to Paris, Sebastiao saw it. When he saw himself the way his son saw him, suddenly that man who barely spoke to me was so touched and had tears in eyes. That was a healing moment for us and a reassurance that the gaze I had over him was a loving gaze. For me, it was a reassurance that he would accept my presence. Much later, we had filmed everything and Wim was there with me. We had finished pre-editing the teleprompter scenes and watched a two-and-a-half hour rough cut. It really moved me. I knew these stories already, but it was the first time I’d seen him tell them to someone else. It truly touched me. When I met Sebastiao again, suddenly, we had become friends. Sometimes you can sort things out by a process like that.
Director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; photo by Iva Roberg, courtesy of and © Ivi Roberg/Sony Pictures Classics
The Salt of the Earth opens Friday, March 27, in New York and Los Angeles.
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