Wim Wenders’ masterful new documentary, The Salt of the Earth, explores the fascinating life and work of acclaimed Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. Wenders, who co-directs with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, takes audiences on a stunning visual journey that chronicles the 40-year career of the elder Salgado through his photography. Sebastião Salgado travelled to over 100 countries for his photographic projects and bore witness to some of the most notable humanitarian events that shaped the world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In an exclusive interview, Wenders and Salgado revealed how the project first emerged, why this was an important story to tell, the innovative cinematic tool Wenders devised to film Sebastião as he discussed the genesis of various photographs and the emotions he felt while shooting them, what they discovered in the editing process, how the project brought father and son closer, how after witnessing famine and genocide Sebastião found inspiration in nature, Lélia Salgado’s pivotal role in her husband’s artistic journey, the Terra Institute, and the filmmakers’ upcoming projects: Wenders’ Every Thing Will Be Fine, starring James Franco, Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Salgado’s documentary on Amazonia and his first fiction feature film. Check out our interview after the jump:
How did this project first come together for you?
JULIANO RIBEIRO SALGADO: That’s true. That’s the nice thing about being many people. It really started in 2009 when Wim came to have dinner with Sebastião. Sebastião invited me. So, of course, meeting with him was something really lucky and exceptional for a young filmmaker. From there, life took its responsibilities. I’m not sure how to put it. Things happened that we actually ended up a year and a half, two years later starting to shoot the film with roughly the same idea of what we wanted. That’s when it started actually, 2009 and then 2011.
WENDERS: Father and son had a different idea of something they might want to do together and had already envisioned doing together. But it was not clear whether it was going to get to a film or whether it was just a way for Juliano to get to know his father better and travel with him, which he had never done when he was a kid until he was 16.
SALGADO: Yes, I did twice.
WENDERS: But still, there was a need for them to be closer. I had met Sebastião at the same time as the two of them had been starting to talk. I had met him very innocently without any idea of a movie just because I had called him my favorite photographer in an interview. For 20 years already, when anybody asked me, “Who is your favorite photographer?”, I’d say, “Sebastião Salgado,” but I’d never met him. I thought it was a little strange. He’s working. I’m working. It’s a little bit of a waste that I had never made an effort to meet him. So, I met him in the summer of 2009. We met a few times. In any event, eventually he invited his son, and we sat there together and started to talk. A little later, we had the idea that the two of us could make something together.
How did your creative partnership evolve?
SALGADO: We shared one thing in common and it came from different perspectives. It was the intuition that Sebastião had a lot to say about the world, that it really had to be a film about his experiences and this experience of humanity that he had that was so particular to him. We both felt that those stories were really important to be told, and that’s what united us at some point. With the photography, it could be fantastic cinema material. But then, for me, it was impossible to shoot because of our story with Sebastião. We couldn’t be in the same room for too long at a time. That changed a lot with the film.
WENDERS: You were quite controversial, the two of you, which is sometimes the case with father and son. So, for Juliano to talk in depth about the photography, he was not the right partner for him.
SALGADO: It was impossible. Wim really wanted to do something. It was amazing from my perspective. Imagine having one of the greatest documentary filmmakers, filmmaker as a whole but specifically documentary filmmaker too, willing to do something, having roughly the same idea. I jumped onboard immediately. It was amazing luck for the film.
What was the catalyst for you, Wim?
WENDERS: I agreed to do it because by then I had met Sebastião a few times, and I knew he was not only a great photographer, but he was also a great storyteller. In the few times we had met, I realized that he had a lot to say. He knew a lot about each picture, and he was ready to tell it all for once if somebody was there to record it. I agreed to be that person. Juliano was going to go mainly to accompany his father on his journeys. Sebastião shoots basically alone, and on these journeys to Papao, New Guinea or to the Zo’é tribe, he didn’t want to have a film team around. But his son, who was a one-man team, was a possibility, and that was very lucky for the film, because this way Juliano was able to see for the first time his father at work and for anybody to see him at work in a very intimate situation. I started to interrogate him about his photography. At the time, I really thought I was going to make a film about a photographer and only slowly came to terms with the fact that this was not just a film about a photographer. This was a film about much more. First of all, he’d been a witness to humanity for so long, but then there was this whole other life that he and his wife had led, and this whole other history and story that took place in Brazil and dealt with a new forest.
SALGADO: That was fascinating for him and it was great when suddenly — because this we hadn’t planned — Wim discovered the Terra Institute by chance. (The Terra Institute, www.institutoterra.org, is part of a major ecological undertaking dedicated to reclaiming the Atlantic Rain Forest in Brazil.) Sebastião mentioned it to him. I didn’t even know.
WENDERS: I had no idea.
SALGADO: And when he came there, it was crazy how fascinating it was.
WENDERS: I just realized I wanted to go there. I wanted to film him there, because it was so important in his life. It didn’t have to do with photography, I thought, and only later I realized that it had a lot to do with photography, because this man would not have survived as a photographer without nature calling him back.
SALGADO: And the whole thing of the cycles of the land, how that land has some sort of — I don’t know if you can say parable or if it’s just a metaphor of Sebastião’s soul — but it has a lot to do with the way the land dies, is born again later, and how Sebastião’s soul comes back to life.
Sebastião has traveled the world capturing so many facets of humanity from laborers in a Brazilian gold mine, to victims of the famine in Sahel and the genocide in Rwanda, and now his inspiring Genesis project that’s dedicated to nature. It’s like he’s been on a spiritual journey his entire life?
SALGADO: Absolutely. It’s really surprising for me because I know Sebastião from our family life. Sebastião is a guy that’s very rational. He’s very grounded. He doesn’t read much because he’s always traveling and making photographs, but when you look at his artist’s journey, there’s something really Zen about it. That’s what I discovered. It’s the equilibrium of the idea that we all have the same importance – animals, human beings, and objects and places. That’s something that he finds through a Zen philosophy. It’s very balanced. It’s amazing to see how much the artist in a way that is completely intuitional is an evaluative person.
What was the most difficult aspect of making this documentary? Was it the sheer volume of material or the choice of photographs or finding a way in to portray this man through his work?
WENDERS: The hardest part for me was to come to terms with the fact that I did it twice, because we started to shoot, Sebastião and I. I interviewed him for weeks, went to Paris and worked with him, book after book and stacks of hundreds of photographs, and slowly plowed our way through the entire work, but in a conventional way, sitting at a table in front of a wall of pictures, in his workspace, in the kitchen, in his darkroom, in lots of places. But it was always two cameras, sometimes a third camera, and the more we shot and the more I got to know his stories and his work, the more I realized this was not going to be the film I was dreaming of. It was just too conventional. The beauty of his storytelling was that when he really got involved with the pictures and when he really was diving deep into his memory and was in the story, it was fine and beautiful and magical. And then, when he was lifting his look up to me and there were two cameras, it was always broken, because then he was telling me the story. He wasn’t telling it to himself, or he wasn’t in the situation anymore. He was making a story and sometimes even his certain routine came in. When you see two cameras around you, there’s something. I realized this was not the film I should be making with him.
How did your approach change once you made that discovery?
WENDERS: It was good that we did the whole thing because that enabled me to envision a more intimate way to do it, and then we started it all from scratch. Luckily, Sebastião agreed, and I invented a whole different situation where he was completely undisturbed by cameras or my presence or the sound engineer. We invented this darkroom. He saw nothing. It was just dark walls, and in front of him, there was just the screen and on the screen we projected his own photographs. So, he only had his own pictures in front of him. That screen was really similar to a teleprompter. It was a semi-transparent screen like newscasters use so they can read their text while they look into the camera, and we all think they know it by heart, but they’re reading it. We turned it around and made it function differently. His pictures were on there, and he could look at them and just be in these pictures in his memory and talk about it. And while he was doing that, he was looking into the camera. So, he had a very intimate relationship with his pictures and the audience, and he didn’t see me. I knew all the stories, or at least most of them. I was able to control the flow of the pictures, switch to the next one, and every now and then ask a question, but he didn’t see me. It allowed him to really remain in the experience and that was much more intense. So, we did the whole thing twice, and that was tough also for the producer and everybody when I said, “Well, we shot already for weeks and weeks, but I’m not going to use any of it.”
What was the most challenging aspect for you, Juliano?
SALGADO: For me, actually the shoot was quite challenging, but not that much, because it was about being together with Sebastião. As Wim said, I was a one-camera crew. So, traveling with him was more about our relationship, and sometimes it would be easy and sometimes it would be more difficult. And then, while Wim was shooting the stuff about the Terra Institute, I went to Brazil and I started shooting things about our family, the cycles, and not much stayed in the film, but some stayed. I was trying to get the feel of what it meant for Sebastião, all this journey of coming back to his land and his relationship with his dad. Even if it’s not expressed in the film, through the transmission of the land, there is something to that continuation of that relationship.
But what has really been challenging for me, and I guess for Wim too, has been the editing. There are two reasons for that. The first is that at the end, when you see the film, it seems so simple. But at first, we had so many more narrative lines and things to lose. That was very challenging and also the fact that at the beginning our method of work was that I would take the edit for two months, then Wim would take it, then I would take it back, and then Wim would take it. At the end, we ended up in a situation where we never found the film. In order to be able to do it, we had to sit together in the editing room. That seems like a very obvious thing but it’s not at all. That was very difficult to actually realize that we weren’t going to work in terms, and that we had to really do it together, and that’s very unusual. In this, Wim has been very generous. He had the idea to do it this way. And that’s been the solution for us to actually [finish the film]. I felt at the beginning that we were going to edit the film in four months. And Wim told me, “You’re crazy. It’s not going to happen like that.” We ended up editing the film in a year and a half. It’s all been a great, amazing adventure actually.
What did you discover during the editing process?
WENDERS: It became obvious that I had to cut his stuff and he had to cut my stuff, and we had to really forget about who did what. We had to realize it was only going to become a film if we overcame these ego problems and just treated the material as if it was common stock. Otherwise, we should have probably both made a single film and we could have. I could have made a film, and Juliano could have made a film. But we both realized that the film that we could do together would be bigger than the one that each of us could do [separately]. To get there, to go there with the entire consequence of letting go control and giving it to somebody else, each of us, that was interesting. I had never done that and it was tough. It was really tough for both of us. We had to fight quite hard to overcome all the pride that you have with your own material and really learn as two authors how to make the same film.
SALGADO: Film is really a gut feeling. That’s so important. What’s right, what’s wrong, it comes from your gut. And then, when you’re two people, having gut feelings, it’s suddenly providence.
WENDERS: We realized in the making of the film, maybe only in the editing, that it was bigger than we thought, and that Sebastião’s path with his photographs was really in a strange way the story of mankind at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new one, and that it’s really about humanity in a very big way. We had a hunch when we were shooting it, that it was, but it was only when we got the time in the editing that we realized that the film and his photography were bigger than we had expected. That is a good thing sometimes that you don’t know what you’re working on while you shoot. You don’t know it really. When I did Buena Vista Social Club, I thought I was making a music documentary, and only in hindsight in the editing I understood it was a fairy tale. It was a fantastic fairy tale. I had no idea while I was shooting it. So, in this one too, this is such a big story of mankind, and we only really came to terms with it after a year in the editing room. That’s the cool thing about documentaries that they reveal themselves.
Has Sebastião seen the film yet and what was his reaction?
SALGADO: Of course, he has. He’s seen it twice. The first time, we were about a week before the end of the editing.
WENDERS: He didn’t want to see it while we were editing.
SALGADO: And I didn’t want to show it to him at first.
WENDERS: And he didn’t want to see it. He only asked, “Why is it taking so long?”
SALGADO: That’s true.
WENDERS: And then, we always had to explain, “We’re not finished. It’s complicated.” So eventually, Juliano went back to Paris and showed it to his father and his mother. I was quite scared because they had never seen anything, and you showed it on a computer.
SALGADO: They saw it on a computer. The distributor had put a huge logo [over the image].
WENDERS: A watermark.
SALGADO: They saw it quite badly. But they got back to us and said, “Listen, it’s okay. There’s nothing in the film that we can’t go with.” We were really happy about that.
WENDERS: When I heard they said, “It’s okay,” I had a sinking feeling that it was “okay,” because we liked it a lot better. Then, we finished it. And then eventually, Juliano went to the film festival in Rio de Janeiro and I couldn’t go, and there his parents saw the film on a big screen.
SALGADO: They were so touched. It was amazing. It was their story. They cried so much. It’s really crazy for me on a personal level to have this kind of dialogue with my parents through the pictures. It’s something that’s difficult to explain, but it really did a lot for us and got us really, really close.
WENDERS: Sebastião called me from Rio and he made a great compliment. He said, “Now I understand why it took a year and a half.” That was a good compliment, I figured.
What did you learn about yourselves in the process of making this documentary?
SALGADO: I learned a lot about filmmaking and instincts after working on this for such a long time and being in contact with Wim. I’ve learned a lot about the trades, and being confident about yourself, and also how you have to leave the trip completely before you can finish the film. Even if it has to take a year and a half of editing, it has to take that time. There’s no compromise. But what I really learned about the film, and that’s funny because it was through Wim, during the film I say I’m traveling too because I want to meet my dad. Actually, the reality is that in the travels, Sebastião is so focused, so into his work, so concentrated that there’s not much dialogue. You can see him be the photographer, the man who meets other people, but it’s not happening in between us. It’s happening with the other people. I saw Sebastião really as a different person when I saw the rough cut Wim did about all those interviews. Suddenly, it was Sebastião through Wim’s eyes telling and understanding all the things he had experienced and he had learned from it. Sometimes he doesn’t say what he learned from it, but you understand he’s learned so much from it. And then, that changed my view of Sebastião completely. When we met again, I had moved a little bit forward and that opened the door for us to actually be friends. That’s what I learned from this film.
WENDERS: My lesson was one of dedication, because as a filmmaker, you think you’re dedicated to the things you do. I was lucky. I basically did only the films I wanted to do in my life, and they take a certain time. But getting to know Sebastião, I realized how much time he invested into these photographs, and how much time he invested into each of these journeys, and how long he stayed with these people in order to earn the right to photograph them, and that he came back and back and back, and he went to Sahel a dozen times, and to Rwanda a dozen times. This dedication for me was an important lesson. And also, the consequences this man took. I mean, he was beginning a great career at the World Bank. It was a promising career, and then he gave it up in order to start something that a lot of young people were doing already, taking photographs. He was 10 years younger than any of these hot shot journalists who went out into the world, and he had to make his name there. He started from scratch, but he did it. And then, at some point in his life, he realized he couldn’t go on with this kind of work. It had destroyed too much in him after what he had seen. He could only go on if he became cynical and he didn’t want to become cynical. So he gave up this job that he had made a name for himself. He had been a social photographer for 30 years, and he was a big name in the world of photography, and he said, “I’m not doing it anymore. I can’t do it anymore.” Being so consequential and so radical, that was really impressive. It meant a lot also for my work, too — to learn to stick to it, to work for so long, and to dedicate so much time, a lifetime to it.
What do you think Sebastião’s work says about him as an artist?
WENDERS: He probably would protest already right here, because I don’t think he sees himself as an artist or he knows he’s a photographer. But me, as an outsider, I can say that he certainly did become an artist in the course of his life, and because of the work and the time he invested, and the way he trained his eye, he did become an artist. But in his artistry, it was never his vision that mattered to him. It was only entirely the people he dealt with, and that was what it was all about. It was never about cool framing or a beautiful shot. It was only about the truth of the situation and the respect he had for the people he photographed. For him, I think beauty is not even a subject. In the year and a half we shot, he never brought up any aesthetic subject because it doesn’t matter to him. He really only cares about how are these people represented, and for him, that’s the only relation he has to it. He does invest a lot of work in the prints. And of course, he has developed his eye and he sees things. It’s almost in his body when he lifts the camera. He doesn’t think about framing. And that’s what an artist does. It becomes your language. But it’s not what he’s all about. That’s not his concern. His concern is really the respect for the people he photographs or the subject, because when he started to photograph animals or plants, he applied the same care to each of his subjects.
Juliano, how do you feel this project has brought you closer to your father?
SALGADO: It brought us much closer. It’s funny because it has been a dialogue with pictures. I really learned and discovered something, and it said something about Sebastião when I saw Wim’s footage. I saw Sebastião through Wim’s eyes. For Sebastião, something quite similar happened when we traveled the first times and when he first saw the short little documentaries. I would edit short things of our travel, and when he saw how I was looking at him that touched him a lot because there was a lot of care. There was a lot of love, I guess. He was seeing himself in a [new] light. He was seeing how I saw him and that opened the door. There was a lot of distrust. He wasn’t sure what was going on in our minds, because he was gone for a long time when I was a child, and there was some resentment from me and some anger. Anger might be too strong.
WENDERS: It was on both sides. I think Sebastião did feel a little guilty towards you that he had so often abandoned you as a young boy because he had all these missions he went on. And you were always a little angry towards him because he wasn’t there. And then, in a strange way, in these three years that we worked on the film, that antagonism completely vanished into thin air.
SALGADO: Completely. It’s crazy. And really, having a third person inside that, it changed everything. For us, it’s an amazing journey whatever the outcome of the film. Even if the film was unwatchable and terrible, we would have already won something really strong.
WENDERS: There is an unsung hero in it, your mom.
SALGADO: Yes, absolutely. That was so important for us.
How would you describe Lélia’s importance in Sebastião’s life and work and what was the extent of her involvement in the making of this film?
WENDERS: I think it was a little difficult for us to really give her the part because in a strange way she didn’t want it. She had always been behind the photography, and she’d always been the mastermind of the journeys and did the research. She had done the books and edited the exhibitions. In the course of shooting the film, it became obvious that their collaboration was so strong and their relationship was the core of his artistry. So how could we forget her, or at least indicate what her place in the story was? But it was difficult.
SALGADO: It was very difficult.
WENDERS: She didn’t want… She preferred her place in the dark.
SALGADO: There’s that, and also the film really is about the journey of Sebastião, and that’s what’s so powerful about those teleprompter scenes. That’s something that really amazed me – to see how effective those scenes are in entering Sebastião’s subjectivity. Actually, there’s travel in time and space just watching those photos and hearing this man speak. It’s amazing how powerful this is. At some point in the film, it’s very difficult to put anything else in other than just the end of his journey. You have to follow him to the end of his journey. It’s so gripping. It’s so hard. If you start putting other things in that are really important, then you lose that thread. That’s something that we felt while editing the film and we couldn’t break it. It was too powerful. I think we did good putting Lélia back. I regret that we don’t have one scene with my brother, Rodrigo, at the end actually just to say he’s fine and there’s nothing dramatic about it. That’s still open, but that’s pretty much the only regret I have. When we were editing it, we didn’t realize that we missed it.
Can you talk about the significance of the Terra Institute and the ambitious ecological initiative your parents undertook to confront environmental devastation in and around your family’s former ranch near Aimorés?
SALGADO: That’s the power of the example of Sebastião and that’s the amazing thing about the Terra Institute. I mean really Lélia said, “Let’s plant a few trees,” and she meant a few trees in front of the house. For me, it was a bit of a joke, and one of those things. Then, 15 years later, it’s an amazing thing. It’s a real forest that’s 15 meters high in some points, and it has won over a lot of the resistance from the other farmers. What’s happening today is that this example is so big that they have just signed a contract with the local government authorities. You know that river that’s passing right in front of the Terra Institute that’s dried out? That’s in a valley (Valley of the River Doce). It’s a huge valley that’s the size of Portugal. It’s bigger than the state of New York. The farmers have misused their land, and the whole valley is dried out and has lost a lot of its economic power. The land doesn’t produce anything anymore. People are leaving the land for the bigger cities to go to the favelas, and it’s this process of people getting poorer and poorer there and the land is dying, exactly like the land was on my grandfather’s ranch. And so, they’re going to be planting trees in every water source of this huge river to actually save it. We’ll be planting one hundred million trees around 370,000 water sources. So, in 25 years, the whole region that’s a desert-looking region now will be living again just like that land of my grandfather’s.
WENDERS: And so, in some future generation, they can start cutting the wood again to have it for pastures. They can make the same mistakes again that your grandfather’s generation did without knowing. It’s really funny. It’s so beautiful that Juliano shot this interview with his grandfather in the late 90’s and you really realize that man had no idea that he killed the land. He didn’t have any consciousness of that. He was worried that there was erosion and he was sad about it, but he had no consciousness that it was his own doing. Like his entire generation, they didn’t know it was their fault.
That’s a very positive legacy and commitment to the future.
SALGADO: Absolutely. And it’s being transmitted to the people around, and the whole area and region is changing because that example worked. So, the power of the example is really strong.
What are each of you working on next?
SALGADO: I’m working on so many things. I’m finishing a documentary on Amazonia. It’s about a place where there’s absolutely no law whatsoever, no common law. It’s like a real Far West place. It’s about four people who have all decided to do things better, but because there is no common law, they are subject to their own violent conscience. It’s about the dramatic of how one can keep his moral rights and his action on the right path when there’s no one to look for that for him. Also, there’s a fiction feature film set in Sao Paolo but it’s really the beginning of the writing stage.
WENDERS: I have been working before we started this and in the middle and now I’m back on a fictional film that will come out next year, a family drama called Every Thing Will Be Fine with James Franco, Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg. That needs another half a year. It’s about a writer. It’s been going on for a long time.
The Salt of the Earth opens in New York and L.A. on December 12th.