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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
To Hell and Back
by Donald Levit

Point-and-shooters’ largely laughable results are counterbalanced by the b&w art in Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth. The latter Cannes (“special prize”), Telluride and DOC NYC highlight about Sebastião Salgado coincides with an impressive three-month “Genesis” International Center of Photography exhibition curated by the photographer’s wife Lélia Wanick Salgado.

Co-directing and –scripting with the subject’s elder son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and executive producing on his own, photography adept (and husband of professional photographer Donata W.) Wim Wenders has been friends with the coeval Brazilian for several years but enthusiastic about his work for much longer. Starting, appropriately, with global-issue book Genesis, he found a “new departure in [Sebastião’s] work” which, together with access to a huge archive of published as well as private unpublished images, gave impetus to the film project.

Initial impulse was to showcase the art, “left to speak for itself,” for practical purposes sans traditional talking heads or even presence of the director as interviewer (although he does speak ever so softly and appear, briefly, reviewing material with his subject-friend). The idea was to have a chronological arrangement, built around the eight-years-long thematic considerations that resulted in the latest stunning Taschen coffee-table books. The photographer’s comments about his always black-and-white shots morphed into a devised screen-and-semi-transparent-mirror process that allows him to speak as though superimposed onto the photographs.

Given the ordering through time, there are interspersed what are essentially home movies of the bearded former student of economics; of his “love at first sight” meeting the seventeen-year-old who has been his wife and collaborator for fifty years now; of the births of their sons Julian and a second one with Down’s syndrome; and of the clean-shaven, bald Patrick Stewart-handsome man spending extended periods getting to know the most often downtrodden suffering whose lives will be spoken silently through the eloquent Leica lens wielded by this self-described "storyteller.”

Over four decades and one hundred countries, his oeuvre tracked the degradation of the weak and the bestiality of the human species, the inhumanity of both strong and in ways of oppressed too. Years are of necessity telescoped into a hundred nine cinema minutes, through selected representative images of slaughters in wars, genocides and starvation, droughts and environmental collapse and lemming migrations of masses; and, though less frequent, the basic joys of music and family, of long-distance running, or of poison-arrow hunting and shimmying up trees. And, later though not exclusively so, of the natural world, from helicopters of formations and mountains and cloudscapes and seas, of polar bears, walruses and marine iguanas which gradually occupy more center stage and provide an antidote to a hopeless pessimism which threatens to overwhelm the man.

There are some limited conversations, from questions to “Grandpa,” with the subject’s father, who got education for his “rascal” of a son “Tiao” and seven daughters in rural Vitória. Victim of man’s greed, once-bucolic Minas Gerais state farmland had been destroyed and denuded. Sebastião and Lélia returned there to his boyhood home a dozen years ago, to begin the regeneration recorded in two books of nine-year “a call to arms” Genesis and a touring exhibition of the photographs of flora and fauna and land and so-called “primitive” communities living in harmony with Earth.

Founding Instituto Terra, husband and wife have encouraged replanting of two million trees and (animal) repopulation of the area, their efforts recognized by UNESCO, WWF and UNICEF, among others. Walking the new growth forest, the seventy-year-old is reborn along with the environment, marvels that saplings in pots will be tall trees for four hundred years in the future, and, in a renaissance of belief, insists that “the destruction of nature can be reversed.”

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity.)

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