German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who has been experiencing his own artistic renewal via documentaries that serve to showcase other people’s art, such as 3D masterpiece “Pina,” joined forces with Salgado’s filmmaker son Juliano on “The Salt of the Earth,” which debuted at Cannes and went on to play the fall festivals to much acclaim. Juliano shot much of the footage of his father at work, while Wenders interviewed him about the amazing stories behind the photos, which he displays on the big screen for the first time in astonishing high definition.
Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the Oscar-nominated film, which played in December in New York (A.O. Scott review here). “The Salt of the Earth” (trailer below) opens in the U.S. March 27.
Anne Thompson: How did you find the focus of your narrative?
Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: We got back to our place of origins. There were so many different narrative lines, and at the end, we are back to the places where we started: Wim, the friend, the admirer, the person who was so curious and eager to discover Sebastião as an artist. And me, trying to make things right in our family, and explaining how it was to be on the other side.
Salgado: Yes. It was very intense. Really, when we finally got there and to the beach, and when we see the world for the first time, the light was so amazing. The bear, when it came close to the house, it was just behind the window, he got that close to us.
Wim Wenders: And they couldn’t shoot the damn bear, of course. That was out of the question. They had this Russian soldier with a gun, but he was, of course, not allowed to shoot the bear. So they were the prisoners of this bear.
How long did this go on?
Salgado: It went on for three weeks, and there are scenes where the bear comes out and checks us out in the wild, which was very dangerous. The guy had blank bullets, and the other gun was like a firecracker to scare the bear out. But when the bear’s running at you, there’s no firecracker…he’s going to eat one of us, at least, so that was the deal.
But you saw the boredom, the patience, the frustration. But your father persevered.
Actually, I discovered Sebastião, really, when I saw, for the first time, what Wim had filmed in this black environment. It was, like, a four-or-five-hour-long sequence, and, at this point, there was concentrated so many things Sebastião had learned from people, all these experiences. That’s definitely changed my vision about my father. That’s how I really met him.
Because he probably never would’ve shared that the way he did. It never would’ve happened.
Wenders: No, and it was good for him to let go of it for once. Slowly, we both realized it was going to be so vast.
How did you pick the photos and make that selection?
Wenders: We did that together. It was an advantage that we had gone through them once before, because I knew a huge part of the story. And still: we shot for two weeks in the dark room, and looking, in real time, you would need seven days to see it, we still shot so much. It then got condensed into an hour-and-a-half. It was a lot, and we both slowly came to terms with the fact that, in a day, we should only do one chapter. We did one one day, and then we did another, and then the gold mine took a whole day, just to go through all the pictures — even if it was already a selection. The first time, we didn’t have a selection.
Salgado: We did well choosing stories that could tell the story of Sebastião. How he learned how to travel, how he suddenly finds a spot for his photography to have a function, a role, creating awareness of a people’s voice. There’s something about the responsibility of the photographer, that he owes the audience to give real information, and an account of what’s happening elsewhere. But it’s also the people that he meets to bring out the reality of their situation.
How did you decide how to present the photos on screen? Are you creating those photos again in HD?
Wenders: In the darkroom, we only needed a little screen, and that was basically the quality of the pictures that we also had available in the editing, so it was the quality of a book printed. And then, when we had edited the film, we went to Sebastião’s lab and said, “No, we’ve got to cut in those pictures. What is the maximum quality we can do that in?” And Sebastião talked with the guy who was running his lab, and they made the best possible digital files of these pictures. Then we cut them in.
Until then, I had seen Sebastião’s photographs in prints, I own some of them, in books, at exhibitions, and on the Avid when we were editing. Then we got these files and cut them in, and they still looked the same, and then we saw the film for the first time, when we started the sound work on the screen, and, I must say, I had my mouth open, I sat down, and I cried because I felt I’d never seen these pictures before. On the movie screen, it was like I hadn’t even dreamt of this. I hadn’t even conceived that they’d be so powerful. I was speechless. I really didn’t know what we had done.
Any discussion of doing this in 3D? In 70mm? Anything like that?
Wenders: God, no. We shot this on a little Canon.
When did Sony come in?
Wenders: Sony came in at Cannes. They saw it and they really wanted it.
Salgado: The first time we screened it was in Cannes at a public screening. For us, that was a huge moment. It was so scary.
Wenders: I have to credit my Sony friend, because he was the guy who saw “Pina,” and he was eager to know what I was doing for so long, and it took longer and longer, and I said, “There’s a movie about Salgado.” We had no distribution anywhere in the world; we just did it on our own. And then he said, “Can I see?” Eventually he came and he saw it on the Avid, and he immediately said, “I want to have this film.” And he only had seen it in rough form on the Avid, so he was the very first one, and it gave us a certain confidence that this was valid, what we were doing, because we were still in a rough-cut stage, finishing. When Sony saw it, they immediately didn’t hesitate. Not a second.
There are many photos of beauty and misery, but there are a couple of photographs where you must’ve been aware of the impact, that an audience was going to respond a certain way. Especially, for me —for everyone, I have to assume — the shots of the dead children in Ethiopia. One in particular with a grieving father really got to me the most.
Wenders: When Sebastião took these pictures, I don’t think he ever thought of their reception. He was so much in the situation, and he was so much in a relationship with these people. I don’t think he thought of a reception until he started to print these pictures. His attitude toward these pictures is not of somebody who thought, “Oh, this is going to be a great picture.” He’s really only in the relationship with these people, and in the whole year-and-a-half that we worked together, he never once, on his own, approached any aesthetics or framing or reception of the things. He only talked about the people in the frames.
Of course he puts a lot of care into the stuff when he prints it, but his only interest is really the relation he has with these people, and that they speak for themselves, and that they have a voice. It’s about their things. These photographs, sometimes while we’re editing — especially with the sequence in Ethiopia — we had to stop the editing process and shut it down, and go out. My editor, she’s a young woman, she sometimes has to stop. We find ourselves crying in front of the monitor, and we say, “Okay, this is it for the day.” Because there are so many more pictures than we actually now have in the cut.
When you look at the volume of what he shot, the time he put into it, and what he experienced… you must have been more aware of it than ever before. What he witnessed is so overpowering. And the impact that it had on him.
Salgado: It’s crazy. It was terrible, but the thing about Sebastião is that, somehow, I think he genuinely felt he had a role to play in telling these peoples’ story — bringing it out. And, somehow, this kept him continuing, and kept it possible to keep doing these photos, because the photos really had a role. These things were happening, and someone had to tell the story, and trying to somehow contribute, maybe, to create awareness, or just allow people that are suffering a great injustice to somehow let their story to be known to others. The crazy moments, the moment where everything stops, is in Rwanda, where 50,000 people disappear, vanish in the jungle. That’s where there is no function to the photos anymore; it’s all finished, and that’s why Sebastião broke up like that.
Wenders: There was nothing to prevent it.
It was the heart of darkness.
Salgado: Completely, literally. Yes. At this point, he started getting thinner — much, much thinner — he started having blood diseases, and he would do exams to find what it was. He had nothing; he was in perfect shape. He was perishing, Along the years, they started planting trees, they started being in some kind of a life situation, and we only realized when we were editing that this is what had happened.
So he had a breakdown of some sort?
Salgado: Yeah, but we didn’t see it was happening. You know things you don’t see when they happen? They just happen much later.
Was it important that your mother Lélia finally make an appearance?
Salgado: That was important to us, actually. We had a few things that we shared with Wim when we started the film. One of them was that Sebastião had to tell his stories. That was really the core of what it had to be in the end, and those scenes are so powerful. The other thing was to give justice to Lélia, try to put her back in the center of that story as well as we could.
Wenders: She’s really the éminence grise, and she wanted to remain that, but we forced her to come out of the shadow, and the more I talked to Sebastião, the more I talked to the family, the more I realized the power of Lélia behind all of this, and how much she had created the ground on which Sebastião was able to do this work, and that she was really the powerhouse behind it. I hope the film makes it clear that they’re both responsible in almost-identical ways.
Salgado was able to witness things that I cannot imagine anyone else has witnessed. You see the depths he felt it and turned it into art. You get this unique picture of the deteriorating state of the world, and then you take the story back to Brazil and the family.
Salgado: Wim didn’t know about that when we started the film. Wim got really fascinated about this whole business of saving that land, and how it was possible. For me, it was comfortable that Wim decided that he wanted to film that, because I’ve been so involved with it. On my part, I was trying to understand what it meant for Sebastião to be on that journey, on that cycle.
Where he goes out and abandons you all, to a degree, and then comes back.
Salgado: Comes back, but also how his father had cut these trees to give him some education, and his sisters. How this land dies for the family to grow, somehow, and how, when the land is dead, Sebastião’s mind is in a state that could say his photography’s dead, too. He’s seen too much and he’s broken down, and then the whole land being lively again and getting life — literally. That was very powerful.
When you see his story as an artist, you realize: there’s a planet there. So many of the things that he learned come out of [the Genesis project] as being a proposal for a balanced vision of the world, and that really came through. We only realized that in the editing, but that’s very powerful for me, as a son, to discover my parents in this light.
Wenders: It’s also almost as if neither of us, and Lélia had, in their own lives, come to terms and understood that this is what cured him. It just had happened, and Lélia had this idea of, “Let’s plant those trees,” and, in the family, probably nobody understood the vastness of it, and nobody understood the consequences of, “Okay, let’s go plant some trees in order to create a memorial for the house where the father had lived.” There was at least a sign, but I don’t think they, in any way, were aware that they were going to be the first people to try to replant the rain forest.
Salgado: On such a scale.
Wenders: On such a scale, to learn how to go do it, and to go along with it, and that this process had cured Sebastião of this terrible disease he had caught, which was the despair of mankind. They were not aware of that; it happened to them. And even in the making of the film, we slowly understood that that was the turning point, and it was good for us to know, and we brought it out in the film. I don’t know how I could’ve done or survived the film if we didn’t know that this had happened. I don’t know if I could’ve made the film without that.
Salgado: It’s the power of the example. For all the farmers around, it was crazy that someone would take semi-productive land and then could make money, could transform it into a reserve. Why? You’re wasting your time, your money, this land — and, fifteen years later, there’s a forest there. The example is so big, the power of that example, that now they’re going to be planting trees. The tree in the film that’s dried-out is dried-out because almost every single farmer in the region has done the same thing as my grandfather. Every time there’s a rain, the erosion goes. What they’re doing now — they just started a few months ago — is a program of replanting trees along every single water spring of this huge river. The area is the size of Portugal, the size of the state of New York, and they’re going to be planting 100 million trees over 370,000 water springs. They have the technology, and it’s fairly cheap.
Wenders: They have the technology because they invented it.
Salgado: The crazy thing is that this is going to be a major technological and a major sociological transformation. It will give all this Earth a lot of its value back, and let people who are living in the countryside go to cities.