The new documentary “Salt of the Earth” about the extraordinary career of the globetrotting photographer Sebastião Salgado is breathtaking, but if you talk to its co-directors Juliano Riberio Salgado and Wim Wenders, they’d describe it differently – exasperating.
“We are really the odd couple. We were not born to make a movie together,” said Wenders, the legendary filmmaker behind such films as “Wings of Desire” and “Pina.”
Wenders had long wanted to make a film about the Brazilian photojournalist, first drawn to his work from the window of a gallery in Los Angeles where his stark black-and-white photos of the parched population in the Sahel of Africa made quite the impression on the filmmaker during the late 1980s. Yet when Wenders finally got serious about making a film about Salgado, he discovered that his son Juliano had embarked on a series of adventures with him to such far-flung locales as Siberia and Namibia in hopes of making a film of his own. Eventually, Wenders was invited to accompany the two, consummating a marriage of convenience between himself and Juliano.
However, in bringing their different perspectives to bear on Salgado’s life, the two achieve a full and deeply enriching portrait of the man, with Juliano drawing deep from his family’s history to tell the story of Sebastião and his wife Lélia’s rejuvenation of their family’s cattle ranch where thousands of acres of rainforest had been knowingly destroyed for the much-needed money it could provide for generations and Wenders able to contextualize the photographer’s remarkable pictures that not only capture the soul of his subjects often in impoverished and war-torn regions, but bring out the humanity in their plight so they cannot be ignored as mere statistics or somehow other. “Salt of the Earth” tracks Salgado’s evolution from a young man with an economics degree who worked at the World Bank and might’ve continued to, had he not started taking pictures while compiling a report on Africa, to eventually shaping the world before him with his phenomenal sense of composition, led by the moral compass that pushed him to contribute these observations to the global consciousness and eventually restore the land that enabled him to have a photojournalism career in the first place.
While Salgado and Wenders were in Los Angeles in the fall, they spoke about the struggle to make a film that would live up to such an incredible man, how they cracked the code with a darkroom, a projection booth which allowed Sebastião to speak from the heart about the photos he took without interference from the filmmakers, and how the two found benefits in working with one another after a difficult start.
You’ve both said you were actually planning separate films. How did your ideas come together for this?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: It’s impossible to reconstruct, but what we had in common actually, was this realization that what Sebastião really had to give, the special thing he had in him, was really the experiences he had along those 40 years of photographing the world. He had experienced so many situations that so few of us have, so it was really important to share that. Of course I couldn’t do those interviews because we are too close, so it was so lucky that Wim was here.
Did you feel having those different perspectives – that Juliano could relate to him as his father and Wim could relate to him as an admirer of his art – were complementary in crafting the full portrait of him?
Wim Wenders: Not necessarily complementary. They were definitely different points of view. Juliano could’ve definitely made a movie on his own, and I could’ve definitely made a movie on my own. Both of these films wouldn’t have been as complete, as the one that we could do together, but we had to find out how to do a film together. It wasn’t obvious. How can two men, as different as the two of us are, actually make one film? But we realized that what we would do together would be better than what each of us could do.
The darkroom is such an inspired idea in the film – having Sebastião speak about his experiences as the photographs he took are projected in front of him. At what point in the process did you decide that was the way you were going to do the interviews?
Wim Wenders: It was a crucial point in the film, so far as I had already finished the film. I had already shot the entire passage through Sebastião’s entire photographic life but in a more conventional way with two cameras — one on him, one on me and sometimes a third [with] both of us. We had been looking at books and huge stacks of photographs, so we had done the whole thing once. I realized that this was not what I really had hoped for. First of all, the more I was in the film, the less I wanted to be in it. And second, I only had touched some of the core of Sebastião’s stories, every now and then. When he really disappeared in his pictures and dug to his memories, that was magic. When there was two cameras, and there was me, and he was in an interview situation, the magic was gone.
We went through that for weeks, and in the end, I told David, the producer, this was not good. I had to come up with something better. Out of necessity, I invented the darkroom with the Terra Instituto. Sebastião didn’t really see cameras any more or a sound engineer with a microphone. He didn’t see me. He only saw his photographs. While looking at his photograph, and talking at length about each of these pictures, completely immersing in the pictures, it was so much better than the conventional methods. I actually shot the big part of my film twice.
Would he know what pictures would come up in advance or is he really speaking spontaneously, unaware of what would be in front of him?
Wim Wenders: No, I concealed the pictures, I had them on my computer and I listened to his stories, but he didn’t see me and I could switch to the next one. Of course, he basically knew [what would be next] because we were going through journey after journey. Together with the producer and Juliano, we had made a shorter selection of the photographs because we didn’t want to go [through everything] again, but it still took us a couple weeks. The interviews in the darkroom alone, to watch them, took days.
Juliano, since you weren’t involved in any of these interviews, was any of this revelatory to you?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: It was. It’s paradoxical though, because when I was child, Sebastião traveled so much and every time he came back, he comes back telling the stories of his travels and of the people he met. When we set up to do the film, I started traveling with him, and it was obvious the strongest thing [he could impart] to a son had to be those stories, so for me, it was a natural thing that had to be done, but it really had to be done by somebody else because of how close we were.
When I saw for the first time the four-hour long rough cut of those interviews, I was suddenly seeing all these things that Sebastião had went through that I knew about, but I never saw them as a whole. Also, seeing it through Wim’s eyes, I really got to understand Sebastião much better. The whole film is a healing process through pictures. Every time we travel with Sebastião, we would edit rough 20-minute to hour-long cuts of those travels and from the first time he saw it, it was so powerful because suddenly he was seeing how I saw him and the reality of my relationship with him. When you see one’s pictures, they don’t lie — where you put the camera, what time you choose to film, what is it you’re pointing at? It reveals how you see a person, and he saw that. It got us really much closer.
You’re with him in the Arctic Ocean. Was there something you learned from seeing him take pictures?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: The most striking moment, of course, when he’s [photographing] the polar bear, the whole situation is beautiful, and in the end, we managed to dodge the polar bear to actually see the walruses. It’s crazy to see how committed Sebastião is. But for me [in the film], the most striking thing is not the polar bear. It’s in the beginning when he’s with those Papua guys. They’re completely isolated. We had to traveling by airplane for four or five hours above the forest, then walk two days across mountains to get to this place where these guys live in a way that’s completely preserved. A few hours before we reached the village, we met those guys for the first time. Sebastião sets up to photograph them, in the distance, trying to not interfere with their relationships. Those people are so different, they have such a different way of life, but Sebastião manages to create this bond with them that’s the most important moment [for me].
Somehow that explains a lot of what’s happened earlier in his work – how he meets all these people and what sort of relationship he creates with them. Sebastião’s great talent isn’t the black and white or the compositions. It’s that he creates those emotional relationships with everyone that he’s going to photograph. He’s capable of putting the camera in a place where, when you see the photography, the emotion still comes through, and intuitively transmit the relationships and what’s happening with the people he’s photographing. That’s the most powerful thing.
This is incredibly easy to follow as a film, but you’re telling such a complicated story with what seems like three separate strands – the evolution of a man, of documenting history, then this personal family relationship. Was it easy to break it down into those elements?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: That was an absolute nightmare, but that’s also the beauty of having two directors doing the film – we have these different point of entry. The process of editing was very hard, but we managed to actually make them one.
Wim Wenders: We almost abandoned it because we didn’t get anywhere. I had these interviews, and I had this story at the Instituto Terra, but it wasn’t a film. Sebastião and Juliano had these great journeys that they took together, and they were great scenes, but it wasn’t a film. Somehow, both of us weren’t able to [realize] the vast size of the whole thing until we realized we had to give up the idea that [Juliano] was the author of his stuff, and I was the author of my stuff. We had to learn to treat all the material that Juliano and I had shot as one film. That was very difficult. I had never done that, and I had made more movies than Juliano, but he has certainly never done it before either, so in order to get to the real film, we had to abandon the film that each of us had made in order to get to one.
Did Sebastião’s imagery actually influence the style of the film?
Wim Wenders: He didn’t want to influence the film. He refused to see it when we were editing. We were both quite happy because it was difficult enough to edit it. So he only saw it at the very end. He did have one influence, though. When we had finished the cut, and Juliano has presented it to his parents, I was very nervous. I didn’t go. He showed it to them, and they both liked it, but Sebastião went into his studio, and together with his printer, they worked on all the electronic files of the pictures that ended up in the film and gave us those electronic files. That was his only input, to make sure that the pictures in the film look good because it’s a very different thing, to show a picture on a giant screen. That was a revelation to us when we first saw those.
It’s been interesting that most of Wim’s documentaries have been about artists. Is that a way in for you?
Wim Wenders: Maybe it’s due to the fact that I think one of the great adventures left on the planet is the creative process. Other people have such different procedures or methods to get there and there are people whose creative process has nothing to do with mine as a filmmaker. A fashion designer, or a choreographer, just for instance – I’d be very, very curious how they approach it. Or a photographer, in this case. How do they do it and what’s driving these people? What is driving Sebastião was really my initial question. What’s driving this man to get this incredible work done? How much time does he spend with these people? How much is he dedicated to this work? I just had a hunch it was an enormous investment, and little did I know how much it was.
For both of you, how much did you want to include yourself in the film?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: Personally, I really didn’t want to. I was tricked into doing it by Wim. One day, I come into the editing room and there’s this beautiful, touching sequence of the baby that’s growing up that’s part of the story and actually the baby was me! Those pictures were never supposed to be in the film. Somehow, it convinced me that I had a role to play, telling the story of Sebastião.
Wim Wenders: There was a point in the editing where I realized that our initial decision to not make a film with narration was wrong, that the vastness of it and that the huge (inaudible) that the film was drawing, could not be done completely without narration. So we needed to write narration. Then I realized I couldn’t be the only narrator. There were two of us, so during the editing process, I saw these family pictures, and I thought, “That’s the way I can bring my co-director [in] and trick him to becoming the other narrator.” It worked nicely, the way we ping pong the narration between the two of us.
Wim, this is actually your first film since “Faraway, So Close” with composer Laurent Petitgand. Why did you want to reunite on this one?
Wim Wenders: We worked on three documentaries together, so I knew he had the gift to enter the world of a documentary and create a score that is not pulling attention to itself and really be glued to the images, as if it had been there from the beginning. I think this is his masterpiece. He was a very young man when we did our first film together, “Tokyo-Ga.” He became better and better, and when [Juliano and I] both realized it would be good because of the vastness of the scope to have a score, I suggested Laurent because I knew he had it in him. But then he truly surprised us.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: He’s amazing, really. Those scenes when Sebastião is telling those stories are so difficult. Of course, we couldn’t put the sound with the photos because it would have taken the magic away, so the score really had to be the score inside Sebastião’s memory, not pointing out what the emotions [he was feeling] were, but really giving that feeling that one could enter Sebastião’s creativity. I believe when we see the film, we actually have this subjective experience of traveling in time and space with Sebastião back to the place that he was in, when he was making the photographs. Laurent’s score actually makes it possible.
You really do rely on the photographs to tell the story, though there are bits of archival footage as well as present-day interviews. Was it important to have the photos carry this?
Wim Wenders: There is very little video in it. [Sebastião] never produced any video. There is an important moment in the film, when he goes into the jungle in Rwanda. We did find this footage by Hubert Sauper…
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: Who’s an amazing filmmaker. He’s the auteur of “Darwin’s Nightmare”, actually.
Wim Wenders: And that was his first short film – on that train into the jungle. A couple of days later, Sebastião went there and Sauper was on the same train, so he filmed it. The film is called the “Kisangani Diary” I realized, by incredible coincidence, there was a little piece of video on the same experience, so we used that, and Hubert was very kind to give that to us. There’s not much more video.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: That’s all there is, actually.
Wim Wenders: Then of course, Juliano had the foresight in the ’90s to shoot his grandfather. You can’t imagine how happy I was [to find that]. I was in the middle of the editing one day and Juliano says, “Oh by the way, Wim. I have this stuff I shot with my grandfather.” I said, “What?” [For the story] it’s remarkable to realize that this sweet old man actually destroyed the land, without knowing he was doing it. Like his whole generation, they destroyed huge parts of the world, not only in Brazil. That generation did a lot of damage, and they weren’t aware of it. They didn’t know that by chopping up all the forests, they were ruining the land.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: No, they don’t know. My grandfather was so surprised. When he got sick, my parents had to take over. It was a burden. My parents aren’t farmers. So when it happens, they really didn’t know what to do with it. Sebastião’s dad, when he saw what the plan was, he couldn’t believe it. “You’re gonna waste this land. Why are you doing this? What’s the point?”
Wim Wenders: [There are these] unconscious streams in the family that the film really uncovered. The film really uncovered that [Sebastião’s wife] Lelia’s innocent suggestion to plant trees, in the end, healed Sebastião’s disease and in the end, helped him reinvent himself as a photographer. But none of it was like, “Let’s do this, so it will have this effect.”
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: Oh, I know! Now it’s amazing today because the Terra Institute has gotten to a point now where it’s grown far beyond the boundaries of my grandfather’s farm. They are going to plant trees. The river that passes in front of the farm is completely dried out now because all the farmers of the region were like my granddad. They’ve killed [the forest] completely. There’s no trees to hold the land. Any rain is going to block the water sources, and when water goes, life goes and people can’t stay on the land anymore. The region that this river crosses is the size of the state of New York. It’s really huge. And of course that example of replanting the trees there brought back life and water. It’s so powerful. They now have an agreement with the local authorities. They have started planting trees far beyond the farm, all over this region, 100 million trees [in total]. 100 million! That’s a lot of trees. Over 370,000 water sources. In 25 years, they will have changed completely the region ecologically and socially. It’s really crazy how much things can change when people actually invest into changing their immediate environment.
It is also interesting to see Juliano carry on the work of his father in terms of capturing images, even though that didn’t seem to be your natural inclination.
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: …And my brother’s a great painter, actually. Listen, for me, it was very clear. I was involved in politics. I wanted to change the world. I was a young man with a lot of hope that we could make things better. Then when my girlfriend, at the time, became pregnant, I had to think seriously, “How am I going to make a living now?” I was studying law and economics at the time, but [seeing] Sebastião’s life, all the things he had presented and the political power of what he did as a photographer in the mediation of historical relevance, so as an audience, we can understand it, I felt that that’s amazing. That’s the life of adventure, of experimentation, of growing up, of learning things and at the same time, it can have such a powerful outcome. So there was no question, I had to do that.
“Salt of the Earth” opens on March 27th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood and New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.