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‘The Salt of the Earth’: A moving look at a master shooting stills

BY BILL STAMETS | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Sebastiao Salgado is a witness of the world. For decades he has documented humanity and its habitat with his camera. In “The Salt of the Earth” filmmaker Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the son of the 71-year-old photographer, show a master at work.
This moving, Oscar-nominated documentary is an odyssey of a tragic observer. On long sojourns Salgado communes with tribes, peasants, laborers and refugees. With his wife working from their Paris base, Salgado undertakes years-long projects. Their prodigious books and exhibitions bear such epic rubrics as “Other Americas,” “Workers,” “Terra,” “Migrations,” “Exodus” and “Genesis.”
The film’s title comes from the Book of Matthew, but the imagery brings to mind primal scenes from the Old Testament. Salgado frames epochal suffering and sublime terrain. From a hell of our making in Africa to his Brazilian homecoming to reforest his grandfather’s ranch, Salgado is a sage guide. We see his face sharing the screen with his eloquent black-and-white photos as he reflects on taking them.
“We humans are terrible animals,” Salgado tells Wenders. After the trauma of Rwanda, he confessed in a 2013 TED talk: “I lost my faith in our species.” Ten years before, he lamented in the wall text for his Chicago Cultural Center exhibition: “Almost everywhere, things are getting worse.”
Although Wenders has made documentaries about a Cuban band, German choreographer and Japanese fashion designer, as well as directors Yasujiro Ozu and Nicholas Ray, “The Salt of the Earth” reprises ideas in his dramas.
“Life is in color but black-and-white is more realistic,” says director Sam Fuller in his cameo as a cinematographer in “The State of Things” (1982). His paradoxical line in that black-and-white film-in-a-film applies to “The Salt of the Earth.” It is shot mostly in color and its subject opts not to.
Salgado’s ground-level angle is a humanist alternative to the high-tech satellite surveillance in Wenders’ futuristic dramas “Until the End of the World” (1991) and “The End of Violence” (1997).
[s3r star=3.5/4]
Sony Pictures Classics presents a documentary directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.