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Devoted depiction of poor salt workers

Salt production in India is one of the largest in the world. Farida Pacha lets us meet a family that lives and works with honor – but also poverty – in preservation.


My Name is Salt
Directed by Farida Pacha


A young woman is holding on to a religious, colorful icon painting as she sits on top of an overloaded and rattled tractor trailer that is heading out into a dry desert landscape. The tractor is transporting an entire family who are on their way to begin their annual work here in the wilderness of the Indian state of Gujarat. For eight months, they will work to produce salt, which they will then sell for cheap money. Then they have to dig down their tools and return to their hometown. The desert will be replaced by the ocean for a while before they can return, dig up their work tools, and start work again.

My Name is Salt from MAGNET FILM on Vimeo.

Indian filmmaker Farida Pacha draws far from any religious picture of the family's struggles in the observational documentary by name My Name is Salt. We follow them from arrival to departure in an elaborate depiction that emphasizes the patience, rigor, heavy and ritual of physical work. The camp that adheres in thick layers to the thin human ankles; water drops that go to waste; the burden of a machine not working; a woman who dances out of rehearsal – everything gets just as much space in the measured, balanced, single-molded images of cinematographer Lutz Konermann.

In patient calm, the film observes the slow, almost invisible movement of the work. We are not given any explanatory information until the very end, so we are left uncertain as to what this and this action should really lead to. It is easy to fall into the repetitive movements here and now, and consider the work of the work as small, almost insignificant jerks in a process without end.

my-name-is-salt-2Existential approach. In a director's note on the film's websites, Farida Pacha says:

«This is not a social issue film, even though the story of the salty 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 labor tediously year after year, generation after generation? What meaning do they find in this existence? ”

This mindset is clearly recorded in the film's opening. After some pictures of abandoned boats in the hot and dry coastal desert, we are served a quote from Albert Camus' The myth of Sisyphus over a charcoal black background: "The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart." Apart from this, there are no text posters in the film, and no narrative voice – the pictures and sounds will show us striving in a methodical and reverent way.

This approach can obviously be criticized for romanticizing, universalizing or abstracting the actual situation and life of this Indian family. There is something clinical, pristine and a little too noble about the pictures – the camera is like an innocent witness who regards the work as venerable while it even appears to be clean on its feet. At the same time, such an existential and almost mythological (in modern terms) approach that Pachas chooses can give rise to a documentary portrait that gives an unbounded dignity to human beings, a moral sovereignty that certainly does not decreases their lives to the social environment and the physical work that characterizes their everyday lives.

We follow them from arrival to departure in an elaborate depiction that emphasizes the patience, rigor, heavy and ritual of physical work.

It is never emphasized that the family exemplifies a social problem – their struggle is rather presented as a human struggle in a relatively relentless nature that can also be generous. The social context is almost totally cut away to focus our attention on the openness of the desert and the actual doings of its purely sensual manifestations.

When this feels pretty unproblematic, it's partly because the movie includes talking spore from the social context – like that they get little paid for work, that they arrive on a rusty tractor, and that they actually choose to live out here in the desert with the kids in tow. When asked by the director about what drives them to return, you get the express feeling that it is emergency, and not a sacred admiration for the work itself.

The "existential" and sensual treatment is also sober and slightly sentimental in its "innocence" that the film never feels beautifying. Still, one can ask the question of what has been ruled out in this one-and-a-half hour long concentrate of eight months – what happened, for example, if a family member fell ill? People who know the area might give us outrageous answers to questions like that.

Place. The documentary as a film form has many characteristics, but one of the essentials is a deep-seated respect for places – more specifically the reality of places. My Name is Salt seems very committed – yes, almost religiously devoted – to how it respects the specifics of these desert plains in Gujarat. The place neither abstracted nor universalized (as opposed to striving). It appears in its hardened hardness.

This is not only thanks to the sharpness of the images, which almost brings out clumps of soil and the individuality of water streams – the sounds of specific tasks (always synchronized with the images), such as spa in soil, also play an important role. Right at this point, the film can be said to have certain touch points with the so-called "sensual ethnography" associated with the Boston-based The Sensory Ethnography Lab, where just non-verbal sound plays a significant role in conveying the sensory experience of a particular place (see Scott McDonalds American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary, 2013, for more info on the work associated with this lab).

My Name is Salt still has more in common with a balanced, low-key and classic-humanist film that The Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo, 1960). Here, a family's daily work routines on a small island are devoted to the attention that is otherwise given to a God. But there The Naked Island creating a poetic and varied rhythm in and between the images, Pacha's film is more concerned with methodical, gradual, visceral and more uncreative to follow the work's actual process picture by picture. Here it is not the interaction between the images that makes the impression, but a slow and arduous time that manifests itself again with each and every image.

The films, however, perform a somewhat similar act: they show us the time-consuming process behind something we often take for granted, and extract what we might term as a modern, documentary version of religious icon paintings: Stoic gaze from an undramatic, demanding and everyday struggle.

The movie can be rented through Vimeo on Demand.
Teaches film studies at NTNU Email

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