Why do we engage with art? What is about a poem, painting, film, or photograph in ways that can sometimes rank among the most impactful experiences of our lives? Sure, skill has a lot to do with it. Aesthetics and story do, too. But one of the things, perhaps the biggest thing that makes art art, and which gives it that extra emotional oomph, is perspective.
Perspective can mean many things. It can mean the point of view from which a story is told. It can mean the way in which something is presented visually; looking down from above, for example, or up from below. More expansively (and when it’s done well), perspective means using all of these to express the worldview of the artist, communicating their thoughts about a subject, or a place, or even just life in general, by what they choose to show us and how they choose to show it.
The Salt of the Earth, Oscar-nominated this year for Best Documentary, is a film about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. But it’s also a film about perspectives. Not just Salgado’s, shown through his life and his art, but also the perspectives of the film’s two directors, the photographer’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and German New Wave auteur Wim Wenders (the director of Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas). Each man approaches the subject with a different point of view — Salgado recounting his own experiences, Juliano as the son who grew up with an often absent father, and Wenders as a fellow artist and long-time admirer of Salgado’s work.
Salgado’s primary interests are social justice and environmental conservation, and the projects profiled in The Salt of the Earth cover everything from the Galapagos Islands to gold miners in Brazil to victims of the Rwandan genocide. The images are at times gorgeous and at times stark and hard to look at, and the photographer is frank and honest with his emotions in his on-camera commentary of the images.
The photographer’s perspective is well-represented. Co-director Wenders, too, gets ample time to describe his relationship to Salgado’s work. But, though he gets some opportunity to comment, Juliano Salgado’s perspective is largely missing from the film, and it’s a perspective with an absence that’s felt a bit too much, especially since, as co-director of the film, he certainly has the chance to speak. It’s clear Juliano admires his dad greatly, but there’s not much about the Salgado family that doesn’t also include their patriarch. It feels like there’s a part of the story that’s not being told, a part that would make the portrait it’s creating of Sebastião Salgado as detailed and unsparing as the photos it showcases.
The real strength of The Salt of the Earth is in Salgado’s photos. If the film were nothing more than a slideshow of his work, it would still be impressive. The photographer’s commentary on his subjects — stories of his interactions with the people he photographed, encounters with stunning wildlife — adds another layer of emotion and understanding on top of it. On that level alone, it’s a solid example of incredible art that reflects the worldview of its creator. This strength makes it easier to overlook the film’s weakness: that while it’s interested in portraying multiple perspectives on the subject, the perspectives of the filmmakers, who do indeed have insightful things to say, aren’t as important. But overall, it’s a good introduction to the work of a man who’s been doing important, deeply moving work for decades.
The Salt of the Earth is in limited release in theaters. WATCH the trailer here:
Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.