Film review of the documentary about the acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
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Directors: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. (110 mins). Decia Films. (12)
Cast & credits
Producer: David Rosier.
Writers: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, David Rosier.
Camera: Hugo Barbier, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Music: Laurent Petitgand.
Featuring: Sebastião Salgado, Wim Wenders, Lélia Wanick Salgado, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
Director Wenders chronicles the life and work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent forty years documenting deprived societies in hidden corners of the world. From the gold mines of his home country, through the desolating famines in Ethiopia in the 1980’s and the Rwandan genocide of the 1990’s, Salgado’s camera has caught many memorable images showing the inhumanity of man. Latterly he has concentrated on images of nature to show how man can bestow a loving hand on planet earth.
“A photographer is someone who draws with light” is the deceptively simple distillation of the critically acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado of his nearly 50 years as a photographer. He has documented and drawn international attention to some of the most harrowing conflicts across the planet and the impact on people.
Given that Salgado has spent months, sometimes years, living amongst these communities gaining their trust, understanding and a deeper insight into their plight, often neglecting his own family (his first son, the co-director and writer of this film, was born when he was away on a shoot), he is far more than just an artist capturing images on film.
Wenders’ film resembles a filmic exhibition of his finest work and reminds us of the potency of the still image at a time when TV news is awash with the horror of war. Here, like at a photo gallery, we get the opportunity to sit and look intensely, critically, perhaps admiringly at Salgado’s most famous and arresting work.
We have time to think about what these images are actually showing us, rather than the swift, eyeball-overload of film we see on the television before being quickly shuffled on to another story on the news agenda.
Salgado has shown and seen an awful lot of suffering and he touches on this during Wenders’ questioning of him, experiences that he says made his soul ill:
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.
There is something sad and cold about him. One feels initially that his voice is calm and relaxed, giving the documentary a dream-like quality. As the film progresses, it becomes distant from the events he is describing, with a chillingly professional detachment. He has, indeed, viewed unimaginable horror through his eyes and camera lens.
I have issues with war reporters who film and commenting on huge-scale tragedy and human suffering, but wandering in the back of my mind, what are they doing to help? There is little in this documentary about Salgado’s practical involvement in the events he has documented. He name-drops the sterling work of Medicines Sans Frontiere a few times, but it’s difficult to gauge the assistance he may, or may not, have given.
Maybe I’m missing the point here with niggly criticism, as the film closes with what posterity will probably judge to be his greatest achievement, Instituto Terra, a foundation he formed on his father’s cattle ranch, a farming method which had decimated the local rainforest around it. By planting new trees, the forest has recovered healthily and with miraculous swiftness. If only the rest of the world’s ills could be corrected so successfully.