Will Wim Wenders Documentary on Sebastião Salgado Win Big at the Oscars?

The film explores the life of the legendary photographer.

Sebastião Salgado in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's The Salt of the Earth.

Will artists reign triumphant at the Oscars? Wim Wenders’s documentary The Salt of the Earth, about legendary environmental and social documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado, co-directed with artist’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, is a contender for Best Documentary.

The movie is a tribute to Salgado’s life and career, which he spent documenting social and environmental issues—among them, the poor conditions in Brazilian gold mines, the genocide in Rwanda, and the deforestation he witnessed in his native Brazil. (He has since planted over two million trees with the Instituto Terra, which he founded with his wife Lelia.)

Sebastião Salgado, Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Channel.

Sebastião Salgado, Iceberg between Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Channel.

There are two main elements to the film: intimate interviews with Salagado, conducted by Wenders, in which the artist articulately recalls the event pertaining to his photographs, and journeys filmed by the artist’s son, when the artist ventured to photograph areas as-yet untouched by human development as part of his “Genesis” project (“Genesis” was his stunning photography show at the International Center of Photography in New York).

The two directors were originally both planning to produce their own films, but ultimately decided to team up and combine their footage, shot both at Salgado’s home, and in far-flung locations such as Siberia, Africa, Indonesia, and the jungles of the Amazon.


Woman at the New York Public Library from John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier.
Photo: Vivian Maier, courtesy of the Maloof Collection.

Due to its limited release, few critics have weighed in on The Salt of the Earth, but it does have a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To date, it has picked up four awards, including two at Cannes, and an additional six nominations, but a win on Oscar night would be by far (naturally) its biggest prize.

The film is one of two Best Documentary nominees that are related to photography. The other is John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier, which explores the life of the posthumously-recognized street photographer. The film was awarded best documentary at the Portland International Film Festival, and has six other wins to match its 17 nods. (The film also helped spark a lawsuit.)

Amy Adams

Amy Adams in Big Eyes.

The strong photography showing in the category is impressive, especially considering the art-related films that were completely overlooked by the voters. In the documentary category, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s Art and Craft, the tale of prolific art forger Mark Landis, was snubbed. Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, about the London art museum of the same name, failed to even make the Academy’s 15-film documentary shortlist, released in December.

Among feature films, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, based on the true story of kitschy paintings of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), which her husband sold under his own name, did not get a single nomination, despite Adams’s win at the Golden Globes. Mike Leigh’s J.M.W. Turner biopic Mr. Turner was recognized in several of the smaller categories, but not for Best Picture or Best Actor, where Timothy Spall was expected to contend for his portrayal of the artist.

Timothy Spall In Mr. Turner.

Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner.

Unfortunately, artnet News doesn’t recommend betting on either photography documentary in your Oscar pool this Sunday, as basically everyone is predicting that Citizenfour, the tale of the considerably higher-profile NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, will take home the prize. The film boasts 39 award wins, including the BAFTA for best documentary, and a 97 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval rating. (Compare that to Johnny Depp’s art heist box-office bomb, Mortdecai, which won’t be making much of an Oscar push in 2016 with an embarrassing 13 percent fresh. No wonder the actor is rumored to have dropped his agent.

At the Boston Globe, Ben Zauzmer, a statistician studying applied mathematics at Boston’s Harvard University, offered Oscar predictions based on critical reviews and data analysis from the past two decades. Although he admitted Best Documentary is “difficult category to predict mathematically,” Zauzmer also gave a decisive edge to Citizenfour, with a 42.4 percent chance of victory. While he puts Finding Vivian Maier‘s odds at fairly close second at 29.8 percent, Zauzmer rates Salt of the Earth as a true long shot at just one percent.

Boy with Apple in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his bequeathed painting, Boy with Apple.
Film still from The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Art also features heavily in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the evening’s most-nominated film (along with Best Picture–favorite Birdman). Honored in nine categories, the movie deals largely with theft of a fictional Renaissance painting, Boy with Apple. So, while it’s unlikely that either photography documentary will emerge with a prize, there could very well be some art-related victories.

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