My Name is Salt: a doc with real grit
11th March 2015

This documentary from Mumbai-born Farida Pacha follows an extended Indian family as they move out to the deserts of Gujarat to undertake a most seasonal form of employment. Its quiet industry is wholly compelling, writes Mike McCahill.

Farida Pacha’s My Name is Salt opens with a Camus quote on Sisyphus: “The struggle to reach the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Pacha’s subject is thus established as Sisyphean hard work, yet the exact nature of this work is for a while denied to us. Instead, we watch an extended Indian family installing themselves in a ramshackle hut on flat, cracked desert plains, whereupon they begin digging. This process throws up first mud, then clay; an old pump is resuscitated; rudimentary power lines are erected, and pipelines connected. Slowly, surely, the film takes on structure.

Within this structure, Pacha herself starts digging, uncovering rich new seams of information on who these people are, and what they’re doing out here in the middle of nowhere. Given the title, it’s no surprise to learn these are salt farmers, going to painstaking lengths so the chefs of Chennai can add a dash more flavour to their daals and masalas. What distinguishes My Name is Salt is the rapt fascination Pacha displays with this decidedly niche undertaking.

Under the gaze of this director’s ever-curious yet supremely patient camera, the mud is first irrigated, then shaped and contoured so that the hut can be surrounded by vast, geometric pools. Seen from on high, this temporary estate might resemble a makeshift Versailles, yet Pacha, appropriately, keeps her recording equipment close to the ground, capturing the labourers’ exertions in detail while allowing a heathaze horizon to bisect the frame behind them. Above it, a cloudless blue sky; below it, a great deal of sweat and toil.

Pacha spent just under a year in this spot, watching closely as the water evaporated to leave the salt behind, and she’s gathered many indelible images of this work. Discarded sandals sit next to a battered transistor radio; caught in close-up, workers’ bare feet move like penguins’ flippers over the newly crystalline surface, tamping the salt down for easier collection.

There’s a lovely flow to Katharina Fiedler’s editing, lyrical yet logical: the water is pumped here – cut – funnelled down here – cut – pooled here – cut – and finally drained out here. The salt slops around in solution, then solidifies as the film similarly takes shape, becoming first visible, then granular, then blocky, forming sugarlump-like pyramids on the horizon before being trucked away for distribution.

It might have played as a scientific study – a mere survey, rather than anything so much as a movie. Yet, if anything, Pacha’s approach actually brings us closer to these people. Off-duty, the girls braid one another’s hair and do word searches, while the guys puff on cigarettes and worry about this year’s crop. A trip to town reminds us of the colour and noise the family have left behind to work out here; Pacha even watches them as they sleep, though given their previous labours, this has the feel of a well-earned pay-off rather than anything intrusive or voyeuristic.

Closing with the family repacking their kit and moving on before the monsoon rains wash in, the unflashy yet committed result is both a quintessentially Zen movie and a shining example of that “termite art” so beloved of the critic Manny Farber: following her subjects’ lead, Pacha mines from her desolate location something valuable, perhaps even essential. Her film counts among the very best kind of cinema: the kind that takes us somewhere new, to show us something we won’t have seen or experienced in such remarkable, piquant, affecting detail.

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