Wim Wenders, Family Therapist: Talking to the Co-Directors of The Salt of the Earth

03/25/2015 7:46 AM |
photo courtesy of Pictures Classics

The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, is a trip around the world, including some of its least-visited corners, led by a mesmerizing tour guide. Prior to the film’s New York opening on March 27, we spoke with the film’s co-directors, German great Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Sebastião Salgado’s son.

[To Salgado] Why did you feel the need for someone else to direct this film with you, and why Wim in particular?

Salgado: Actually, my relationship with Sebastião when we started the film was dreadful. I mean it was a complicated father and son relationship, and it didn’t give room for interviewing Sebastião, having free chat with him.

Wim appeared in our life in 2009, and they wanted to do something together, him and Sebastião. And when it started to be possible for me to make a film about my father, it was natural that the first person I think about to help would be Wim, because he wanted to do a film about Sebastião.

Wenders: I didn’t really want to make a film about Sebastião to begin with. I just wanted to get to know the man. For years, in any interview when I was asked “Who is your favorite contemporary photographer?” I always said “Sebastião Salgado.” And eventually I thought, wow, I don’t even know him, and he’s still working. I should try to meet him. But even when I met father and son, there was no thought of a film yet.

[To Salgado] And, you know, I talked your dad out of thinking of a film when at some point he asked me: “Do you think, Wim, there is any other way for me to deal with my photographs of [his latest photo project] Genesis than in a book and an exhibition? Do you think I could somehow put them on a screen, maybe with music or something?” I said, “Don’t! It will end up a slide show and that is not good for you.”

And then I went back and I thought, there is one thing that would allow Sebastião to show his work on a movie screen, and that is his own stories, because he’s such a good storyteller. And I told him that, next time we met. He thought for a while and said, “But I’m going to have to tell them to somebody. Could that be you?” So we all of a sudden thought about it. And as we did so, you were thinking about doing this with your dad.

Salgado: Yes, we had the same intuition. For me, when I started thinking about doing this film, I was following Sebastião on his trips, but it was very clear to me that those trips didn’t say the right things about Sebastião. Sebastião, since I’m a child, every time he comes back home he has stories to tell. He speaks about the world.

Those stories [he tells in the film] in Brazil in 81, with those kids that died that were buried with open eyes, and so many children dying, that was the first time I was confronted with that kind of reality. I was seven at the time, or six. You start realizing that there is more to the world, and it is coming from the voice of your dad, and he’s got so much to tell.

So at some point very early, when I started thinking about this, I thought: If there’s a film, it should be about the stories.

And you thought it would work better for your father to tell the stories to Wim than to you?

Salgado:  It was impossible for him to tell the stories to me.

Wenders: Yeah, I think these stories could not have been passed on without someone more objective. And also you were too impatient with your father.

Salgado: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. I would have interrupted him; we would have had fights; it wouldn’t have worked.

Having Wim was the luckiest thing possible because he’s such a great artist, who’s done so many documentaries. His last before this one, was Pina, which was mind-fucking-blowing! So having Wim on board, it was like, “Wow, guys, this is amazing!”

And actually it was amazing, and I’m going to tell you why. Wim started talking to Sebastião around the table, like we’re doing now, with the photos, covering every angle. And then at some point [we realized] the result was dull, and Wim had an idea that changed the film completely.

Shooting him through the teleprompter.

Salgado: Yeah.

Wenders: By then, we had shot for weeks. The producer thought it was in the can. And then I realized it all had been research, and it only put me in the position that I knew the wealth of his stories, but I also knew we needed to film differently. It was interview situations with me in the shot, conventional situations, you know?

Talking heads.

Wenders: Talking heads, yes. It wasn’t good enough. And it wasn’t good enough not just because I was in the shot, but because with the camera in the shot, Sebastião every now and then got self-conscious. He tells a story and he’s looking at the photos and he’s really getting into the memory, and then he looks up and he looks at me and all of a sudden it becomes an act.

I thought, “What can we do to immerse [him] once more in that time? His journeys are so amazing because he does immerse so much. How can we get back to that point?” And I eventually came up with the idea of the darkroom and the teleprompter and him just alone, facing his photographs, no camera, no Wim Wenders, no sound engineers. He was only looking at his photographs, talking about what he saw in front of him, and while he was doing so he was looking into the camera.

You say no Wim Wenders, but you were behind the camera, weren’t you?

Wenders: Yeah, but he couldn’t see me.

Salgado: Sebastião is surrounded by black backdrops. The camera is going between two of those drops, and between Sebastião and the camera there is this teleprompter – you know, a mirror that you can film through. Wim actually very rarely interviewed Sebastião. He was busy feeding in the photos. The magic, the power of this thing that Wim invented is that Sebastião was isolated from the team completely and was drawing himself into the situation again, living those things that were happening with the people that he had photographed years ago.

Wenders: He was also looking at the camera, without seeing the camera. That’s the thing about the teleprompter. Of course, newscasters have text there. He was alone with his pictures.

I was behind, operating the flow of the pictures. When I realized he had come to the end of this one, I went to the next one. That’s why it was good that we had already talked for weeks, because I knew a little bit about what he would say.

[To Wenders] You have made some wonderful documentaries about artists. The ones I’ve seen—this one, Pina, and The Buena Vista Social Club—are as good as any I know of at showcasing the art itself and also providing insights into the act of creation and the relationship between the artist and his or her life’s work. What it is that draws you to making movies like that?

Wenders: There’s only one impetus with me, and that is to really love something, very much, so that, like a kid, I want to run out and show it to an audience. Pina Bausch’s choreography, to me, was the most beautiful thing ever created on this planet by a single person. What she did moved me so deeply that I thought, “I want to make a film about that. This is so precious I can’t keep it to myself.” And the same thing with the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was so intoxicating, so contagious, that I thought, “Wow, how can we make sure that not only a few people listen to this music?” I am interested in spreading a virus.

And the same thing with Salgado. I love his work. I really love it. It means very much to me. And then I realize, I keep talking about this man, in the interviews I have, but I’ve never met him. I have to get to know him. Not make a movie, but get to know him.

When we first met, I didn’t have any idea about the family story. I only found out while we were shooting, and Sebastião and his wife Lelia referred to the forest [the two are replanting millions of trees on the family farm in Brazil where Salgado grew up, after its forests were denuded.] I said, “What is this forest you are talking about?”

[To Salgado:] The film makes it clear that your mother collaborated very closely with your father. She helps choose the subjects of his shoots, she helps curate and promote his work, and it was her idea to rejuvenate the forest. But we see her only very briefly, and never in the same frame with Sebastião, except in a few old still photographs. Why did you decide not to show them together, or to include more of her perspective on the work they’ve done together?

Salgado: We interviewed Lelia a lot. We really tried to put [in] as much of Lelia as we could, but two things happened. One is that Lelia’s interviews weren’t as clear as Sebastião’s were. Also, if you see the film again you’ll realize that, after the first half hour, Sebastião starts speaking about the photos and from this moment on he’s the only voice in the film until the end, about the Terra Institute. Wim comes back a little, but only giving a little information to help the story flow.

We tried to edit it in a different way, but we realized very quickly that this was so powerful that it was impossible to mix it with anything else. And then for the last part of the movie they were interviewed together, but again the stronger part was when they were on their own.

Wenders: And your mom had a general resistance to appearing.

Salgado: That’s true.

Wenders: She was so much used to being the power behind the throne that even when we wanted to shoot her, she was “No no no no; this is not about me.” It was her part in their history to be the eminence grise—how do they say it in English? The driving force behind it.

Salgado: Absolutely.

[To Wenders]: You say in the film that it was a different experience for you to shoot a photographer, partly because he is always shooting you while you’re shooting him. What else about it was different?

Wenders: It was not only that I never filmed a photographer, so I wasn’t quite used to the fact that a photographer is a walking reverse angle who can actually shoot back, but I’ve also never really filmed a storyteller. I think that’s almost more important – not that he was shooting back, and that he had his cameras always with him, except [when he was looking at his photos] for the documentary. That is part of his body language, to have a camera.

[To Salgado] I don’t think I would have actually gotten involved in this film with the two of you if I hadn’t known his capacity to sum up his social, philosophical, financial, economic, psychological knowledge of these people and these situations, to put it to words.  Most of the people who make images are not so good at talking about it. And sometimes that’s good; it’s good that some painters can’t talk about their work. It makes them better. But Salgado is different because what he adds is not an interpretation of what we see. He just has all this background. The background is why he went there in the first place, because he researched it and knew so much, and wanted to know so much. That’s why it’s so good to have him talking. That was my reason to say yes to doing this film.

So did it feel more like you were shaping his story than like creating your own?

Wenders: Yes. Yes, absolutely. This was the job at hand.

Salgado: That’s the reason why we came to this film in the first place, both of us. Of all the guys who have been traveling and doing photo-reportage, I think Sebastião is the only one who, when he is confronted with his photos, is not saying how difficult it was to get this angle, how much trouble with the light, etcetera. He speaks about the people who were there and his experiences there.

And his experiences of the world become ours, in a way. I’ve been a fan of his for decades too, and in watching the photos in this film I realized, oh, that’s where I got my understanding of what was happening in Ethiopia, or whatever. It’s like he’s an explorer who goes out and finds things the rest of us would never otherwise encounter, and then shares it with us.

Salgado: That’s his great talent, is that sharing. It’s not just his great black-and-white compositions that make his work so profound. His great talent is that he builds relationships with the people he meets. He is capable of putting his camera in a place that, when you see the photo, you feel that relationship, and that breaks the distance completely. You can’t protect yourself [by] thinking, “Oh, this is far away; those are strangers.”

[To Salgado]: Your parents, especially—or anyhow more publicly—your father, have lived their lives so fully and created such an amazing body of work. Is that an inspiring or an intimidating way to grow up? Or some of each?

Salgado: A bit of both, actually. When I started working, I was a cameraman trying to do documentary. I was 22. I had a son, so I had to work, and the people I was working with were mostly a bit older than me. They all felt that I was there because of my name, and that was very difficult. You know my name is Ribeiro Salgado, I took the Salgado away, so I was Juliano Ribeiro for a while.

Is that your mother’s name?

Salgado: No, that should be, but actually I was born in France so I have my dad’s name only. I needed to, you know, make my own experiences. But actually now, it’s inspiring. I was born into a family that was open to the world. The dinners at home were with people like Wim, Cartier-Bresson, other great photographers—people who had a take on the world that was different, who knew about things, who traveled to verify them. I think it was great, actually. It was very, very lucky.

When my girlfriend got pregnant and I had to find a job, I wanted to do that too. To mediate between historical or important facts and my opinion. It was such a political and such an interesting job to do. And then I confronted so many other cultures all the time, growing up. I benefited from that a great deal.

The connections you drew in the film between what Sebastião shoots and where he grew up were so interesting. They made me wonder why Africa, especially in and around the Sahel, keeps drawing him back. Do you think there is something there that feels like home to him?

Salgado: I think so. Sebastião grew up in a place that was very, very isolated. The place he was born into was a week from the city that you see in the film—a week by horse.

Yeah, that story about him seeing money for the first time when his parents sent him off to school at age 15 was pretty amazing.

Salgado: It is amazing. So for him, it’s [going to that part of Africa] not like going to an underdeveloped country or a hard place. It’s going back to a place that he knows. I think that makes it easier. And the regions are all the same latitudes [as his home in Brazil], so it’s all the same –

Same kind of weather, same vegetation?

Salgado: Same societies, actually. It’s very similar.

How has your relationship with your father changed because of this movie?

Salgado: Listen, when I became a teenager, our relationship got to be very, very distant. When we first traveled together to the Zo’e tribe, I didn’t want to go. He forced me. He wanted me to see these guys. He wanted me to share it. I’d been doing documentary for fifteen years at this point, so I filmed it, but I was afraid we were going to be a Herzog-Kinski kind of situation.

But the Zo’e are so nice that it actually went well. And when I came back from the trip and edited these images, I felt the Genesis project might be something we could film. Everything changed for him when I showed him the little film I had shot. You know, the camera doesn’t lie. He starts crying when he sees those images, because he’s seeing how his son sees him. That’s what opened the door for me to keep filming him as much as possible. Also, I felt that there would be a healing for us, but actually it didn’t happen this way.

The crazy thing is, it happened when I saw those interviews [that Wenders did for the film]. It’s really weird, because I knew those stories, enough to choose the path so we could tell Sebastião’s story. But when I saw him, filmed the way he was filmed and saying it the way he says it to Wim’s camera, man, it was so powerful! All of these things that I think other people feel when they see it, I felt for the first time. And when I met Sebastião again, that was it. We were healed. We became friends.

Wenders: So I was your family therapist. •