“The Salt of The Earth” is a feature documentary about the work of Sebastião Salgado directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
For the last 40 years, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has been travelling through the continents, in the footsteps of an ever-changing humanity. He has witnessed some of the major events of our recent history; international conflicts, starvation and exodus. He is now embarking on the discovery of pristine territories, of wild fauna and flora, and of grandiose landscapes as part of a huge photographic project, which is a tribute to the planet’s beauty.
Sebastião Salgado’s life and work are revealed to us by his son, Juliano, who went with him during his last travels, and by Wim Wenders, himself a photographer
Wim Wenders was born in Düsseldorf in 1945. After two years of studying medicine and philosophy and a year-long stay in Paris as a painter, he attended the University of Television and Film in Munich from 1967 to 1970.
One of the most important figures to emerge from the “New German Cinema” period in the 1970s, he was a founding member of the German film distributor Filmverlag der Autoren in 1971 and he established his own production company, Road Movies, in Berlin in 1975. Alongside directing atmospheric auteur films, Wenders works with the medium of photography, and his poignant images of desolate landscapes engage themes including memory, time and movement. His photography series, “Pictures from the surface of the Earth” and “Places, strange and quiet”, have been exhibited in museums and art institutions around the world. Wim Wenders has published numerous books with essays and photographs.
Wim Wenders became a member of the Academy of Arts Berlin in 1984. He was awarded honorary doctorates at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1989), the Theological Faculty of the University of Fribourg (1995), the University of Louvain (2005) and the Architectural Faculty of the University of Catania (2010). He is a founding member and president of the European Film Academy and member of the order Pour le Mérite. Currently he is teaching film as a professor at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg. Win Wenders co-authored the book Inventing Peace with Mary Zournazi, published by I.B. Tauris, London.
Wenders is currently in post-production with his upcoming 3D feature film EVERY THING WILL BE FINE, starring James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams.
He lives in Berlin, together with his wife, photographer Donata Wenders.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was born in 1974 in Paris, where he grew up in a Franco-Brazilian environment. In 1996, he made his first documentary for Arte, Suzana, on the use of anti-personnel mines in Angola. Other documentaries followed, made in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Brazil. At the same time, he made news reports for Canal+ in France and for TV Globo in Brazil. Salgado then entered the London Film School, from which he graduated in 2003.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado has made a number of short films and documentaries for French television. His 2009 film, “Nauru an Island adrift.”, made for the Grand Format documentary unit of Arte, was selected by numerous international festivals (Hot Docs in Toronto and Le Festival Dei Populo in Florence).
He is now working on his first feature-length film that is to be filmed in Sáo Paolo, Brazil.
Bijan Tehrani: I’ve always wondered if Salgado photographs would ever be made into a film and after watching “The Salt of The Earth”, I think that this was the best possible adaption of his work. I think “The Salt of The Earth”, is more than a documentary about a photographer, it’s a film about life.
Wim Wenders: That is what we hoped to do. One reason to make this film was to have other people share the wealth of Salgado photography. For years when people were asking me who is my favorite photographer I always said Salgado and eventually I decided to do something about it. I had never met the man. I and Julio became friends and together we made the movie. Selgado’s photos meant a lot to me and I hoped that a film about his work would impact people who are overloaded with images; my hope for this film would help people see the images that actually matter.
Bijan: The message that goes through our minds when watching the film is that he spent his life for helping other people, he was not just an observer, and he was a part of the scene.
Wim: That is the truth, I don’t think he was interested in aesthetics of his work or making a name for himself as a photographer, he was interested in making a voice for the people that he encountered. That is why Salgado took pictures and in a year and a half that we shot this film, he never talked about the photographs as a piece of art, he never on his own approached any of these subjects and he only wanted to talk about the context and who is on the picture.
Bijan: The difference between a painter and a photographer is that a painter can make the scene in the way he/she wants, as opposed to a photographer, it is very hard to arrange things in the way you exactly you want in a photograph. But with Selgado’s photos many times is more powerful than paintings.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: The thing about his photography is that he can really put the camera in a place that when you see the picture, you are going to see what he was seeing when he made the photo and that is what is really powerful about him. He quickly creates relationships with his subjects, he creates an emotional link and I think that is his great talent.
Bijan: You mentioned that when looking at his photographs they evoke emotions in you and it is the same feeling that the photographer had.
Wim : That is why we wanted to make this film, because I love photography but I feel that you cannot see a photographer in every picture he or she takes, but when I look at Selgado’s photographs I feel that you could always see the man behind them and I saw the empathy and the passion and the dedication, in his work before even I met him. I wanted to reverse the angle and make the photographer visible and show the eye that is so full of empathy and care and that was my reason for making this film. To find out if I had seen the right reverse angle in all of his pictures.
Bijan: Juliano, the expectation should have been that you shouldbe the one to make a documentary about your father, but after watching the film I can see why a filmmaker like Wim Wenders has been involved. Because then your relationship with your father may affect the way you make the film.
Juliano: The one thing that we had in common with Wim, was the intuition that there was more story that what you could see in the photos. Of course I could not do the interviews with my father because we were so close and our relationship was a competing relationship. When I was filming him in the street and was coming back to edit it, I saw that there was a lot of love and a lot of understanding, but I could not do this film alone. What surprised me was that after the rough cut, I saw my father’s work from a neutral point of view and I understood him, much more and it changed the way I saw my father. Therefore Wim’s presence was absolutely necessary.
Bijan: Wim, was it difficult to edit the film?
Wim: There were different challenges, we had hundreds of hours of material from our journeys and if you would have to look at all the interviews and the materials, you would have spent weeks. The main difficulty was to find the arch of this amazing life and to find the narrative structure for it. At the beginning we both agreed that the stories in the film were so important that we did not need a narrator, but we never got anywhere with that approach. We finally realized that we are never going to make a film if we did not give up that attitude and we started to edit each other material. We had to overcome our pride and we both realized that together that if we really overcame that sort of ego trip, then the film would never reach the heights that it was capable of.
Bijan: The ending of the film is so amazing. It comes to the right conclusion about the character and understanding his devotion to people and nature and what he does by recreation of the forest on his own. Did you have this ending in mind form the beginning?
Wim: It dawned on both of us that we wanted to do something bigger to really grasp the size of the story that we are telling. If I hadn’t shot in Brazil and got to see the terra forest I might not have been able to finish the film. Knowing that there was something to fall back on would have hindered the production, like in reality we had to work through it and lead to a conclusion and we had to uncover your own footage and see what film wants to come out of it.
Bijan: For the interviews you the film, the person asking the questions is never on camera.
Wim: There were no questions; we did all of these interviews twice. We shot without knowing much about him and not sure how to get through this massive body of work, we would go through all the books and photographs and we would shoot in his kitchen and his living room and over the weeks we went through all of the work and realized that we did not have a movie. We really had to emerge into his memories and the we had a moment of truth and then it became precious. He was in it and at the end of these weeks and weeks; we now know how the interview is supposed to go. We put him a dark room and showed him his photographs, he was alone with his pictures and he was looking at the pictures and emerging in the memories from them and at the same time he was looking into the camera, I could direct the flow of photographs and most of the time I just let him speak, he was alone with his photographs.
Bijan: How have audiences reacted to the film?
Wim: I can only speak for myself, but I was very effected over the course of making this movie, sometime the editor and I sat there with tears in our eyes, because we could not handle it anymore, and I did not know if people could handle it, especially the ending. For me it worked and when we first showed the film in Cannes we were both flabbergasted by the reaction.
Bijan: Will the film be submitted to the Academy Awards this year?
Wim: Well Sony is doing the qualifying run, but you can tell it is not really up to us, it is up to documentary branch to put it into the short list. Sony is going to do whatever is necessary.