Talking heads seem to be the most maligned convention in documentaries. Just look at Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which has earnt widespread praise for its omission of such interviews despite not being an especially good film. Certainly, talking heads can be a crutch for uncreative documentary directors, who use them solely as an opportunity to flesh out their narrative by cutting together the best answers to their (generally unheard) questions.
But, as demonstrated in the documentaries of Win Wenders, talking heads have the potential to operate as a powerful form of portraiture, at once old-fashioned and contemporary. Wenders and other great documentarians understand that there is much to be understood in the simple intimacy of a person’s face in close-up. His Oscar-nominated dance documentary, Pina, is a potent exemplar of this; despite the passing of its subject, Pina Bausch, before the film’s production, we learn so much about here simply from observing dancers thinking about her. We see Pina through their eyes, even if they don’t say a word.
““The power of a portrait lies in that fraction of a second when you catch a glimpse of that person’s life,” explains celebrated social photographer Sebastião Salgado, the subject of Wenders’ latest documentary The Salt of the Earth. “The eyes say a lot, the expression on the face… When you take a portrait, the shot is not yours alone. The person offers it to you.” One can just as easily imagine those words coming from Wenders’ mouth; it’s clear, from the way he frames his subjects, that he shares Salgado’s philosophy when it comes to portraiture. Observe how Wenders constructs The Salt of the Earth; Salgado’s photos are projected as the photographer discusses the story behind them, but as the stories become more personal, more emotional, the photos fade out to allow Salgado’s visage to share the frame. The distinction between the art and the artist dissolves. The Salt of the Earth is not a story of Salgado, nor a story of his photographs – there is no division between the two. (Also note that the only traditionally-framed talking head here is Salgado; this is his story.)
The first half of The Salt of the Earth is masterful. We’re presented with breathtaking, beautiful, confronting photographs. Images of a sprawling Brazilian gold mine, crawling with thousands of workers desperate for riches, are as compelling as the stories Salgado shares of his time there, clambering up precipitous ladders to get the right photo. His series, The Other Americas, is similarly fascinating; the photos, and the way Salgado talks about them, tells you so much about both the artist and his subject. This is accompanied by Herzogian narration from Wenders – fittingly, bringing himself into the art as much as his subject does – who pays homage to Salgado with his own bracing black-and-white cinematography.
The second half of the documentary, however, feels somehow lesser than what preceded it. Salgado’s flourishing career saw him photograph some of the world’s greatest tragedies. His craft is undeniable, the images indelible. And yet … some of the intensity, the immediacy of his early career has disappeared. The ethics of such photography – lingering on emaciated bodies and corpses alike –has been widely criticised; I don’t know that it’s our place, from the safety of the first world, to judge Salgado’s choices here. Nonetheless, there’s something ghoulish about these photos. When Salgado talks about his South American subjects, he mentions how intertwined life and death is for them. But in these photos, there’s nothing but death. You get the sense that he’s become inured to his surroundings, abstracting the extent of the tragedies before him. Laura Jaramillo criticised the absence of a political context, but I don’t think that’s my problem – it’s the lack of a personal connection.
One could argue that Wenders’ framing in this section is, therefore, an honest portrait. He uses the aforementioned technique of blending Salgado and his photos less and less, reflecting the increasing distance between the art and the artist. Just as Salgado’s career has shifted towards documentation, so too does Wenders film – whose voice we hear less and less of. Perhaps. A less generous reading is suggested by words spoken by Salgado’s wife, discussing their Instituto Terra project: “It’s no longer one person’s idea, it’s everyone’s!” The Salt of the Earth is not just Wenders’ idea, either; he shares a directing credit with Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who began the film without him. The post-production was reportedly contentious, and it’s hard to imagine Wenders having sufficient control to create such ambiguity (particularly given the obvious respect he holds for Salgado).
It’s not impossible though, particularly after watching Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders’ first Oscar-nominated documentary. Comparing this film – about the music of Cuba – with both Pina and The Salt of the Earth reveals how differently Wenders approaches such films, and how vividly he inhabits his subject’s perspectives.
Just look at the cinematography of Buena Vista Social Club. The Salt of the Earth was crisp, and precise, and very much in the vein of Salgado’s work. But this film, shot on digital Steadicam is loose, fluid. The focus wavers with a guitarist’s fingers in the opening song. The restless, drifting camera captures this sense of idle humidity, an intoxicating mix of vibrant primary colours and peeling plaster walls shining in the Cuban sun. The cinematography feels intuitive, picking out a member of the band with a curiosity that opens up into an insight into their life. The talking heads shown here are about the only time the camera stops moving!
Just as Pina spends the majority of its time in dance, and just as The Salt of the Earth pores deeply over photographs, music dominates Buena Vista Social Club. It’s almost a concert film, but it’s executed with such nuance and grace that to describe it as such would be an injustice. As with Salgado, there’s no separation between their music and their life; music is life for these men.
In many ways, this is also a story of Cuba. We open with a photo album – featuring photos of Castro and Guevara, which provides a political context without overemphasising it. Later, the camera glides through what appears to be a sweatshop; the joy of music contrasted with the realities of poverty. It’s because of this focus that the film becomes somewhat less compelling once we travel to New York; if nothing else, the digital photography is better suited to the sweltering sun of Cuba than the night lights of Manhattan. But it’s a necessary cap to the narrative, and brief enough to not unbalance the film overall.