Wim Wender’s Oscar nominated profile on the Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado is one of the most illuminating and deeply moving portraits of an artist to hit the screen in a very long time. Co-directed by Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro it focuses on the celebrated photographer’s extraordinary body of work with its powerful images that make the scant commentary that Wender provides at times complete superfluous.
It opens with Salgado’s most recognized images from the Sierra Palada mine that were part of his ‘Worker’ series of the 1980’s. They set the pace for some extraordinary breathtaking photographs that will haunt you for the next couple of hours, and remain with you long after that. Like so many of the projects Salgado chooses to record, the sheer scale of the extremes that humanity go to survive are for the most part incomprehensible to accept and understand. In this particular instance this multitude of miners are risking their lives for the possibility of riches, but when it comes to the projects that he covered with Doctors without Borders, the only focus of the subjects he captures with his lens are simply to stay alive against all the impossible odds.
‘The Sabel: the End of the Road’ project was Salgado’s first major exploration of whole communities suffering from deprivation. He followed that with ‘Exodus’ which was a record of the misplacement of several populations through famine and war, concluding with the atrocities of the civil war in Rwanda. This, he related on camera, left him psychologically scarred by the what he witnessed, but his words were unnecessary as we could see his pain in the devastating images that he photographed at the time.
Throughout his life since his political views made him and Leila, his wife and collaborator, flee their native Brazil because of their political views, Salgado has left his family for years at time to follow his passions. They were to capture humanity often at its worst and compile a remarkable record of some of the world’s most violent scenes of misery of the past few decades. Wender notes that some critics such as Susan Sontag have accused Salgado of making his work into aestheticized objects for Western consumption but they are simply misreading and unnecessary over -intellectualising the fact that as an artist (and a really superb one at that) he just cannot fail to bring a strength and even a dignity to even the most harrowing of subjects.
Watching the movie wind its way through Salgado’s whole body of work is in itself an intense experience and in Wenders he has found the most perfect soul mate to help share his experiences. Wenders adds some brilliant touches such as photographing the photographer and blending Salgado’s own image with that of the photograph he is discussing at the time which adds such an intensity.
When the Salgados happily returned to Brazil after the eventual change of government they find his aged parents still living on the family farm that has been ravaged by the both the droughts and the wholesale destruction of the rain forests. When they first mention their plans to restore it all back to how it was original decades ago by planting over a million trees it seems that this scheme is so ludicrously extreme that it can only be a wild fantasy. By then however. Wenders has made us appreciate the extraordinary commitment and selfless determination of Salgado, and equally important of Leila too, that it comes as no real surprise that they succeed in this ridiculous plan which eventually extends far beyond their own lands now.
Salgardo says at one point ‘We are a ferocious animal. We humans are terrible animals. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.’ By choosing to finish the documentary with the creation of Instituto Terra, Wender does at least a positive footnote to end on as after all man’s inhumanity to man that Salgado has focused on so far, it gives us some hope that all is not totally lost.
A worthy winner of three Awards at the Cannes Film Festival and a César from the French Film Academy, it is the perfect portrait of a remarkable artist and an exceptional human being.