Salt of the Earth

 

Sisyphus-retouched-HD-pre-LA

Salt is a quiet seasoning, making its culinary point by bringing out the best in the dish it’s been added to. The crystaline mineral is so ubiquotus that we often don’t consider its vast history in the forging (and funding) of empires. Neither do we think about the labor it takes to bring it forth from the earth and water around the world.

Indian film maker Farida Pacha has the perfectionist sensibility to share the story of the families who return to the saline desert of Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch to laboriously extract the salt from the desolate landscape. This seasonal migration has been going on for generations and the work is a matter of pride more than economy.

Director’s Notes: 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 labor tediously year after year, generation after generation? What meaning do they find in this existence?

Following the tradition of films like Into Great Silence and Quince Tree of the Sun, this is an observational documentary about people striving for perfection and their devotion towards work. The canvas of the film is very small; its universe limited to the minor pleasures, travails and tribulations of this family. There are no large dramatic events. Rather, it is the simplest possible story spread out over an endless eight months. The simplest possible actions set in an unchanging landscape. And yet everything hinges on these actions, on this landscape. At every stage of the salt making process, the family must work with precision and a close attention to details – a salt bed not trampled well will turn soft in no time, a rake with even one spike not aligned right can ruin their labour of months. Through the eight months, Sanabhai’s family will have to deal with many small crises: the pump stops working, the level of the ground water decreases, there are unseasonal rains or sandstorms. If the family has not made enough salt at the end of the cycle, they will be in debt to the salt trader the following year. The rewards are few, but still they take pride in making the best and whitest salt in the world. The film ends with the monsoon: the desert is inundated with rain water and all their salt fields have been washed away. The next year the family must return to start the process all over again.

As a filmmaker, I am attracted to stories that lend themselves to a philosophical exploration on the human condition. In Sanabhai’s story, there appears a mirage-like reflection of the ancient tale of Sisyphus, who so loved life and so struggled to prolong it, that the gods punished him by condemning him to work without reward. By reducing life to its most basic equation: that work is our condition, and not to work is to be outside life itself. The film, then, is a philosophical meditation on deeper questions: What is the meaning of work? Why do we do the work we do? What is the relationship of work to life? In the end, Sanabhai’s story is meaningful not just because it tells us something about the world we live in, but because it tells us something about our own selves.

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