This much we know: The photographer takes the picture. Less clear is the reverse process – what the picture takes back. And this, to a large and illuminating extent, is the subject of Wim Wenders's The Salt of the Earth.
For more than 40 years now, the Brazilian-born photographer Sebastiao Salgado has been taking pictures of the horrors that people are capable of: mass starvation and enforced migration, ethnic cleansing, wholesale ecological and economic catastrophe. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kuwait, Yugoslavia. With his camera, Salgado has travelled to all these places in the teeth of their misery, and the pictures he has taken – black-and-white, monumental, often so aesthetically accomplished they confound our notions of beauty – comprise an act of witnessing that is history on its own.
While Jennifer Baichwal's ravishing 2006 Edward Burtynsky documentary Manufactured Landscapes offers inevitable comparison, Wenders's portrait of the photographer as witness to disaster is considerably less interested in process than personality. Although The Salt of the Earth makes Salgado's technical and artistic skills abundantly apparent, and nowhere more so than when he bemoans a walrus herd frightened by a polar bear into a compositionally dull cluster, it's the toll taken by the art on the artist that the filmmaker himself stalks.
Both an accomplished still photographer and conscientious global wanderer in his own right, the German-born Wenders (Paris Texas, Buena Vista Social Club, Pina) is fully aware of the built-in redundancy of a film about photography, that more than moving pictures are required to make a movie.
And this, fittingly enough, Wenders finds in Salgado's eyes. Looking directly into the camera, Salgado – now in his early 70s – seems to be staring straight at us until you notice something. As he talks with such startling clarity and precision of the photographs he has taken, his eyes are scanning. And it may take you a moment or two to realize what's going on: As he's being interviewed, he's looking at the same photographs, projected on glass, that we are. And as he's looking at the pictures, we're looking into him.
The tactic might not be the only one at work in The Salt of the Earth – there are also more standard passages, such as archival biographical still montages, scenes of Salgado at work in the field and talking-head interviews with the photographer's aged father – but these direct-to-camera testimonials are the movie's troubled heart, and raise the inescapable question of what happens to a soul when it gets to the point where it's simply seen too much.
Dedicated as he's been to documenting human misery and atrocity, Salgado is a man who's been spiritually broken by his art. At one point, lost in his own images of Rwanda, he even suggests that "no one deserves to live."
But in Brazil, on the farm where he grew up and is reunited with his family (including his filmmaker son, and Salt co-director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado), Wenders observes his subject's restoration to something like hope, a spiritual reboot rooted in the effort of bringing life back to a dead land. With his wife Leila, Saldago starts a massive project of environmental restoration on the farm.
In a sense, it's as happy an ending of any movie you're likely to see this year, a stirring suggestion that not only can the Earth be saved from disaster, but life can appear where death once prevailed and a shattered heart put back together again. But as irresistible as that sentiment may be, and as powerfully rendered by Wenders as a kind of Edenic rebirth, it can't quite shake what has come before. I don't doubt that life and colour can be restored to the dry and cracked hills of Saldago's family farm. But can they possibly erase what his eyes, and ours, have already seen?