A young woman holds on to a religious, multi-coloured icon painting whilst seated atop an overloaded and rickety tractor trailer on its way into an arid desert landscape. The tractor is carrying a whole family en route to start their annual work in the Indian wilderness of the Gujarat state. Over the space of eight months, they will cultivate salt which they will then sell cheaply. Thereafter, they must bury their tools and return to their own village. The desert will for a while be replaced by the sea, they will then revisit, dig up their tools and resume their work.
The picture Indian film maker Farida Pacha paints of the family in her observational documentary My Name is Salt is far from religious. We follow them from arrival to departure in a detailed depiction which emphasises the fastidious, heavy and ritual nature of their physical labour. The clay clinging in heavy layers to slender human ankles; wasted drops of water; the liability of a broken down machine; a woman dancing her way out of repetition – all is allocated equal measures in cinematographer Lutz Konermann’s metered, composed, monolithic images. Patiently calm, the film observes the slow, almost invisible work movements. No explanatory information is offered until the very end, so the audience is left wondering what the various actions are in aid of. It is easy to fall into the repetitiveness of the motions, and to consider the tasks of the job as tiny, almost insignificant tugs in a never-ending process.
Existential approach. In a Director’s note on the films website, Farida Pacha explains: «This is not a social issue film, even though the story of the salt people and their exploitation is a shocking one. What attracts me is the more fundamentally tragic question at the heart of their existence: What compels them to return to the desert to labour tediously year after year, generation after generation? What meaning do they find in this existence? » This mindset is clearly visible in the opening of the film. Following some images of abandoned boats in the hot and dry coastal desert, we are supplied a quote from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus set against a pitch black backdrop: «The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. » There are no other textual placards in the film, and no narrator – the images and sounds show us the struggle in a methodical and respectful manner. This angle could obviously be criticised for romanticising, universalising or conceptualising this Indian family’s real situation and life. There is something clinical, untouched, and a little too pure about the images. The camera is like an innocent witness considering the work to be dignified whilst keeping itself well out of the way. Simultaneously, the existentialist and almost mythological (in modern terms) approach that Pacha opts for, could deliver a documentary portrait in which people are prescribed unbridled dignity, a moral sovereignty which definitely does not reduce their lives to the social environment and physical work which exemplify their every day.
We follow them from arrival to departure in a detailed depiction which emphasises the patient, pernickety, heavy and ritualistic of their physical work.
It is never highlighted that the family exemplifies a social problem – instead their toil is presented as human struggle in a relatively inhospitable environment which can also be generous. The social context is all but edited out to focus our attention on the openness of the desert and the actual tasks in their purely sensuous appearances. This feels rather unproblematic party due to the film’s use of vocal tracks from the social context – such as the work’s poor payment, their arrival on a rusty tractor, and that they actually choose to live out here in the desert with their children in tow. When the director asks what makes them repeatedly return, you are left with the express feeling that the answer is destitution and not devout admiration for the work in itself.
The «existential» and sensuous treatment is so sober and unsentimental in its «innocence» that the film never feels beautifying. Regardless, the question remains what was excluded of the eight months condensed into an hour and a half. For instance, what happens if a family member becomes ill? People familiar with the area might have been outraged about that.
The location. Documentary as a film category has several hallmarks, but one of the most crucial ones is the deep seated respect for locations – rather locations’ facticity. My Name is Salt seems incredibly obliged – almost religiously devoted – in they way in which it respects the concrete side of the Gujarat desert plains. The place is neither abstracted nor universalised (in contract to the struggle). It appears in all its harassed brutality. This is not only due to the sharp images, which almost individualise clumps of earth and streaming water – the sounds of daily tasks (always in synchronicity with the images) such as digging the soil, also play an important part. This particular side to the film can be said to tie in with the so-called «sensuous ethnography» which is linked to Boston-based The Sensory Ethnography Lab, where precisely non-verbal sound plays a vital role in communicating the sensuous experience of a particular location (see Scott McDonald’s American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary (2013), for further information on the work connected with this lab).
My Name is Salt has, despite this, more in common with a balanced, muted and classically-humanist film such as The Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo, 1960). Here, a family’s daily routines on a small island is awarded the same attention otherwise bestowed upon a God. But whereas The Naked Island creates a poetic and varied rhythm in and between the images, Pacha’s film is more focused on following the workers actual process image after image in a methodical, gradual, slow and more uncreative manner. It is not the actual interaction between the images which impact, but a slow and laborious period which repeatedly manifests itself in every image. The films do however, perform a similar action: they show us the time consuming process behind something we often take for granted, and retrieve what we could term a modern, documentary form of icon paintings: a stoical look at dull, demanding and everyday hardship.