It’s always essential with any documentary that the viewer can create some sort of emotional bond, or connection the piece at hand, and in some cases, with the subject themselves. Where the Oscar nominated The Salt of the Earth is concerned – chronicling the life and work of the venerable photographer Sebastiao Salgado, that much is a given – as his very own son Juliano
Speaking to HeyUGuys in Paris, we discussed the project in great length – collaborating with co-director Wim Wenders, and how this film has worked in potentially mending what has been a fractured relationship between Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and his father.
The Salt of the Earth is immensely emotional – some very upsetting moments. Even more so you I imagine as there’s a personal aspect – is it a difficult film to watch back?
It is. But it was mostly during the editing to be honest with you. We had to go through some of the scenes for days, and there were points where we just couldn’t go on anymore. It was too hard. Now I’ve seen the film but it’s worn off a little bit.
How did the project start? Who initiated the idea?
It was a long process over two years. It all started in 2009 when my father called me to have dinner with him and Wim Wenders. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to meet one of the great masters of cinema. From this, an idea came out about a film he wanted to make, but he didn’t know what, when or how. A few weeks later I made a short film and I showed it to my father and though we had problems communicating, from adolescence, when I showed it to him something very strange happened. He started getting very emotional and his eyes were red, and somehow I saw that he was touched and also that there was room for me to make a film about him. I was trying to avoid it all costs, I really didn’t want to, but at this point, I thought, why not now? So I started to think and spoke to Wim and realised we had the same intuition, and that the strong thing about Sebastiao was not the fact you could go and see him photograph something, it was actually all the stories he told us when he came back from his trips. The experiences, there was so much. It was so rich and there was so much more than just photography, so we decided that if we made a movie about him, that had to the core of it. So we decided to make a film – and it was a collaboration, even the idea.
Would you say that making this film brought you closer together with your father?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a longer story, but that’s a result of it, yes. I grew up angry at him, especially when I was a teenager, and that kept us apart. So making this film and seeing his work through his eyes, it has worked a forgiving process.
In the film it does explore the fact he was away a lot when you were growing up, so this must have been a great opportunity to spend some time with him, and understand his work?
You know the weird thing is that in the film I set out to discover more about Sebastiao by travelling with him, trying to see how he was in a different context, and engage in conversations outside of home. But it didn’t work out the way I planned. He was very focused, utterly concentrated on his subjects and making bonds with the people he meets. He wasn’t there at all, free for the kind of chat I was hoping for. But what did drive me closer to him was watching the scenes Wim had filmed, the interviews with him that are so important to the film. Wim shot the sequences in a way that was really powerful. At first we thought it would traditional, shot with two cameras, and that would be it, but it was a little bit dull. But Wim came up with a powerful idea that was really strong – and brought Sebastiao to his studio, and sat him on his own. Then showed him his own pictures. There was no interview, just him reacting and remembering the moments he had lived. It’s very beautiful. Then when we edited it, I felt closer to him. I felt like I discovered him again and I understood things about his experiences and what he’s gone through and it changed me a little bit, and it was enough for us to have a relationship and become friends.
Does it change the way you look at his photos as well?
It kind of did. The one idea we had in the beginning was that we weren’t going to make a film about a photographer, but what this man had witnessed. So it wasn’t driven by a photo selection, it was driven by the way he would tell his stories.
I can understand why somebody would want to make a film about your father – but why did he want to be a subject?
He has been engaged in several films already, it’s not something new. But he wasn’t very comfortable at first with the idea and he took a little bit of convincing. I thought we could something really strong and that he had a lot to share.
What does he make of the film? Has he told you about it?
No actually he hasn’t. He was very touched though. The first time he saw it was in Rio when we opened the film festival there, and he was very moved. So at the moment it’s more of an intense healing process, and it’s complicated and bizarre as it’s happening in front of everybody, but that’s what it is.
There’s one moment that’s quite powerful, when your father says that he lost faith in humanity, and while the film is devastating, it’s oddly uplifting about it. Did you get a sense that it could work both ways?
We knew that it would be a healing process and if we managed to do the film well we could keep the audience inside of that too, and convey this sense of optimism and maybe some hope. So we were trying to get there, absolutely – it was a necessity. Otherwise it would have been too difficult, and what would have been the point?
Has Sebastiao regained his faith in humanity?
I think he has, yeah. He was devastated and it was terrible. I remember this time in his life and he was getting sick and thinner, and we couldn’t find a cause, but it was very depressing for him. Very hard. But again, I only understood that watching the film. I knew the photos but he never formulated these things in this way, so it was really interesting.
Did he used to show you his photographs when you were a child?
Yes, I grew up looking at them.
Even the more distressing ones?
No, he would spare me with that. I was too small.
In regards to collaborating with Wim – as one of the greatest living directors – it must have been brilliant for yourself, to learn from him?
It was very interesting but very tough. At one point in the editing we had gut feelings on what film we wanted to be made, and we didn’t really agree. At one point we had to put our egos aside, because we had a lot of fights. We realised we had to sit together in the editing station and do it together, and we got it made.
Was it handy having somebody detached so heavily involved? Because had you directed this just yourself, it would have been a very different project….
Yes, it was very useful, definitely. To have somebody outside was very important. But we complimented each other very well. I knew Sebastiao’s stories, and I had an insight on what was happening within, whereas from Wim we had the point of view of an admirer, just there to tell the story. Together it works.
Do you find now you have some creative relief? Now the film has been made, do you think it was something you always wanted to do, and having now finished it, it’s taken away that burden?
Well for me it was an immense risk to do this film. I’m exposing myself. It could have been very bad, but I was stupid enough to take all of these chances. So I do feel like it was a burden, and now I need to take a holiday.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker yourself?
I used to film things when I was very small, but I didn’t think I was going to do that for my job. When I was 22 my girlfriend was pregnant and we were very much in love and decided to keep the baby, and I had to find a job, and I was studying law and economics and realised it wasn’t for me. So I decided to give it a go. It suited me.
And how about your brother – he’s not in the film?
No he’s missing in the film. We have a sequence of him on the bonus DVD. That’s one of my biggest regrets in the film, we should have had more of him. He’s doing really well, he paints, he’s very talented. He lives with my parents still and he’s happy.
Your father was away a lot when you were a child, but do you think the fact you’re a filmmaker and your brother is a painter shows that he was still very much an inspiration to both of you when growing up?
As far as my brother is concerned, I’m not sure you could say that. But for me, definitely. The lifestyle, travelling the world, meeting people and see foreign places is so interesting. The real thrill from documentary filmmaking is not the film, but the experience of being there. It’s amazing and enriching, so in my case, I was definitely influenced by him.
The Salt of the Earth is released on July 17th. You can read our review of the film here.