Photography, Misery And Beauty In 'The Salt Of The Earth' NPR's Bob Mondello reviews The Salt Of The Earth, a documentary directed by Wim Wenders about Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado.


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Photography, Misery And Beauty In 'The Salt Of The Earth'

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Filmmaker Wim Wenders is best known for his dramatic films "Paris, Texas" and "Wings Of Desire," but he also makes documentaries, often about the arts. Critic Bob Mondello says that in his latest non-fiction film, "The Salt Of The Earth," Wenders has turned his camera on a man who wields a camera.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: At the very beginning of "The Salt Of The Earth," photographer Sebastiao Salgado describes his first visit to a massive Brazilian gold mine - a huge pit, 50,000 laborers climbing ladders, not a machine anywhere, just the sound of men moving a mountain of earth.

SEBASTIAO SALGADO: (Foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: "I'd returned to the beginning of time," he says. "I could hear the gold whispering in the souls of these men." His black-and-white photographs accompany this recollection, thousands of laborers staggering under the weight of sacks of soil. Each man, Salgado explains, had the right to pick one sack to keep, probably full of just dirt, but possibly containing a king's ransom in gold nuggets. So they are aching and exhausted, eyes gleaming with hope. That mix of anguish and exultation is typical of the haunting, often era-defining images Salgado has captured as a photojournalist - firefighters battling to extinguish some 500 oil wells aflame in Kuwait after the first Iraq war, draught in Niger in '73, starvation in Ethiopia a decade later. Events from which you might ordinarily avert your gaze, Salgado gets you to look, by finding humanity in scenes of despair - an infant's trust, a mother's fortitude, a half-naked boy clutching a guitar, shoulders straight, staring out at an endless expanse of sand.

SALGADO: (Foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Wim Wenders found an intriguing way to capture both Salgado and his work simultaneously. He shot the photographer talking about his photos through a screen with those photos projected on it. Salgado couldn't see the camera lens, just his own work. And as he speaks and his eyes dart from detail to detail, it's as if he's reliving the moment he'd captured on film while peering directly into our eyes, confiding in the most intimate ways about his art. He paid a price for that art. "Salt Of The Earth," directed jointly by Wenders and Salgado's son Juliano, shows how Salgado became the world's foremost social photographer, schooled in economics, fleeing Brazil's dictatorship, making it his life's work to chronicle the great horrors of our age - genocide in Rwanda, war in Bosnia, the displacement of whole populations. We are a terrible species, he tells the camera, distraught at the modern-day exoduses he's witnessed. The film would leave audiences distraught, too, if the photographer didn't then experience a kind of genesis, devoting 15 years to the planting of 2 million trees on a Brazilian wasteland wiped-out by drought and over-farming, literally rebuilding a rain forest. Healing the land helped heal Salgado and provides an eloquent closure to "Salt Of The Earth" as landscapes of human misery give way to landscapes. I'm Bob Mondello.

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