The best documentaries not only shine a light on hidden corners of the world but, through careful observation, elicit a true appreciation for experiences far removed from our own. Filmmaker Farida Pacha does just that with her excellent feature debut, effectively turning the unending toil of Indian salt producers into a hypnotic affirmation of humanity’s resilience and tenacity.
For eight months of the year, Indian families decamp to Gujarat’s salt marshes to cultivate and harvest the gleaming white crystals, which are reverently cajoled from the earth like jewels. They bring everything they need to survive on this alien landscape, and – ingeniously – dig all of their heavy machinery out from where it has been stored under the earth.
In the absence of any narration or onscreen conversation, the soundtrack instead comprises the rhythmic sounds of everyday life in this extraordinary environment: the sputtering pump acts as a relentless beat, feet stamp across the dirt, chapatis are slapped into shape. This, together with Marcel Vaid’s evocative, unobtrusive score and cinematographer Lutz Konermann’s beautiful framing, gives the film a hypnotic lyricism at powerful odds with its gritty subject.
This power is intensified by the fact that all this work is destined to be undone by nature itself; monsoons will inevitably come and turn the marsh into ocean, overwhelm unclaimed salt and erase all evidence of human endeavour. Yet this is treated not as mournful devastation but as a necessary cycle – quiet acceptance that’s made clear by a well-chosen opening quote from Albert Camus’ essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart’). And, despite the unimaginable hardships to which it bears witness, My Name is Salt is not an expose of exploitation or suffering – although it is an unavoidable fact that these families remain in poverty – but a surprisingly uplifting celebration of exceptional human achievement.