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Audrey Kupferberg: Salt Of The Earth

These days, documentary films are in fashion.  As recently as a decade ago, if you were at a cocktail party and began talking about a documentary you had just seen, your friends or colleagues would have moved towards the buffet table to avoid hearing what you had to say.  Documentaries were considered boring.  With the exception the films of Michael Moore, or Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, that could inspire some exciting political conversation, the majority of factual films took a back seat to fiction films.

Now we have so many documentaries which stimulate strong opinions.  Some of the more talked about docs of the summer are WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, a controversial look at jazz legend Nina Simone; LISTEN TO ME MARLON, in which the career and private life of the actor are presented through Marlon Brando’s own voice; and LITTLE WHITE LIE, in which filmmaker Lacey Schwartz explores her mysterious mixed-race roots. 

While each of those films is worthy of discussion, one documentary new to home markets this summer is a standout.  It is called THE SALT OF THE EARTH and deals with the life and the work of a world famous, Brazilian-born social photographer named Sebastiao Salgado.  In this film, the adventurous, meaningful life of Salgado and the amazing photographs that he has taken in war-torn and remote areas of the world over the past four decades leave indelible memories on the viewers.

For many Americans, the term ‘social phographer” brings forth images of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding or wealthy ladies in big hats enjoying Ascot.  However, the term means something very different when applied to Salgado and his works.  He traveled far beyond locales recognizable to most viewers.  In each, he recorded peoples’ lives.  Often his subjects were tribes or communities that were victimized by natural disasters, dying of hunger or disease.  Sometimes their lives were shattered brutally by the cruelty of human enemies.   

After “staring into the heart of darkness,” especially after photographing the Rwandan genocide, Salgado felt a need to strengthen his faith in humanity.  It was then that he focused his camera lens on the original natural beauty of the planet and indigenous peoples who have been living rudimentary lifestyles for thousands of years.  He began studying the Galapagos Islands and then moved into the vast portions of earth that remain in a state similar to a time of creation.  He calls this theme Genesis.  Part of his intention is to show that the destruction of nature can be reversed. 

THE SALT OF THE EARTH is co-directed by Salgado’s son Juliano RibeiroSalgado and famed German filmmaker WimWenders.   So much of the story of the film is told to us by Salgado himself, and the result is a film that is strong in veracity.   In addition to authenticity, the outstanding aspect of the film is the glimpses of Salgado’s photographs.  They are spectacular images.  In other filmmakers’ hands, the images could have been less dramatically presented.  In Wenders’ experienced hands, they serve as a strong element in the storytelling-- and the stories are amazing and mind-blowing.  Salgado is a brilliant artist, and Wenders is a gifted filmmaker.  Together, they make THE SALT OF THE EARTH a very moving viewing experience.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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