Farida Pacha’s debut feature-length documentary is inescapably beautiful. Lingering shots blister with the heat of the desert salt pans, mud squelches under the weight of bare feet, oozing up ankles and sticking to the skin. Later, crystallised lumps of pure white salt slip back into the water with a seductive splash. But it’s not just the cinematography that makes My Name Is Salt so beautiful, there’s a poetic beauty to the subject matter too.
Eight months out of every year, between the rains and the monsoons, 40,000 people leave their Indian villages to produce salt. Pacha’s film opens as one such family arrives in the desert. As they begin digging, uncovering pipes and pumps below the muddy ground, a seed is planted in our minds. As well as the satisfaction of productivity, creating abundance from the seemingly barren, there’s also a futility about the work this family is embarking on. In eight months time, the waters will return and wash away their labours. The strenuously dug out salt pans will vanish and the cycle will begin again.
Pacha’s film is entirely observational. There’s no intrusive narrator manipulating the subjects with loaded questions or biased judgements. Pacha has made a crucial decision to offer us an intimate and subtle documentary that awakens the senses while subtly directing us towards the social issues.
The salt production process is precise, deliberate, meticulous and Pacha’s directorial style reflects this. Her documentary is slow, but the effect is not tedious, it’s thoughtful, careful, with a reflective mood. Each stage of the process is delicately captured, with close attention to the vast measure of expertise needed to reap success. There’s much for the young salt workers to learn, from the construction of rakes to the diligent building of the salt pans. It’s laborious work. We watch as the family dig through the mud with basic hand tools, systematically rake the salt pans and, perhaps the most thorough of all tasks, tread down every inch of the salt crust. The gentle rhythm of this treading – each family member following a little behind the last – is captured with such elegance by Pacha that it gives the impression of a graceful dance. Yet this physical beauty also works against the film at times, distracting from the punishing, gruelling toil. As a father reclines on his bed and exclaims ‘enough of those songs’ to his excited children, we glimpse the real, exhaustive toll.
In another poetic move, Pacha directs our attention to the wildlife that make this deserted plain their home. Sparrows flit in and out of the shacks and pigeons peck over the dust. Birdsong burbles along in the background. It’s a subtle reminder of the relationship between our existence and the environment we inhabit. When the family leaves the desert, Pacha records the journey from the back of the truck. A young boy watches as his home becomes a tiny dot on the horizon. The family have just buried their equipment – pumps, boots, water canisters – and we know they will return. It’s reminiscent of the seasonal migrations we associate with birds and fish, necessitated by environmental changes. Here Pacha’s film evokes an elemental feeling, a simplicity about life.
Of course, the lives of the salt workers are inherently complicated, something Pacha’s film suggests but doesn’t stress. The salt trader is never far away. We hear the workers talking to him over the phone and we feel a gradual pressure rising. What if the salt won’t crystallise as quickly as it should? The beds are taking too long to tread and the salt is still soft. The family rises early when the water pump is broken and worries it might cost 1000 rupees to fix. Yet by placing these scenes side-by-side with calm, methodical processes, the overwhelming mood is contemplative. Without a narrator to remind us, it’s often easy to forget the consequences of failure. When the trucks arrive and the workers discuss their payment, Pacha gives us the most forceful reminder of their plight. Salt producer Sanabhai worries that payment will ‘hardly cover the cost of the crude oil we’ve been burning’. He asserts that ‘next year we won’t work for such a low price’. We’re left to draw our own conclusions about what power the workers have to affect this change, and whether or not their plight will be worse still next year.
There is a subtlety in Pacha’s suggestion of exploitation that’s sometimes overshadowed by the poetic beauty of her storytelling and Lutz Konermann’s cinematography, but never quite obscured. My Name Is Salt doesn’t pretend to be a social documentary. Instead it’s a reflective, sensory and consuming cinematic experience that asks its audience to think for themselves. Viewing it is an intensely personal experience.
My Name Is Salt will be screened at the ICA, London on August 28th.