Farida Pacha’s My Name Is Salt opens with a reference to the Greek king Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, and repeat the action—and that is all by way of information for the next 92 minutes. The documentary’s formal narrative approach attempts to mirror the process it records—the laborious, rigorous, repetitive and often back-breaking attempts by harvesters to coax salt out of the Little Rann of Kutch’s arid ground year after year.
The annual white salt rush is told through the story of Sanabhai and his family, who pitch their tent and belongings in the desert every year for an eight-month period to dig holes, pump water out of rocky earth, repair the machinery when it fails on them, and pump again. Slowly, patiently, surely, a salt pan is born, a process captured in its entirety. The documentary memorably reflects the intertwining rhythms of hard labour and family life in the desert, especially in an eye-popping sequence in which the clan members link arms and waists and methodically and gracefully shuffle across the salt pan to smoothen its surface.
The landscape seems unremittingly severe, but there is not a trace of self-pity among the proud and hard-working characters, and none of the futility associated with Sisyphus. There is also immense beauty in the precise images (the cinematography is by Lutz Konermann), the editing structure (by Katharina Fiedler) and the minimal sound design. My Name Is Salt is doing the rounds of festivals, and most recently picked up the Best Documentary Feature Film award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last month. It will play at the Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July-17 August), and is in consideration for selection by the International Film Festival of India and the Mumbai Film Festival later in the year.
A Zurich-based film-maker, Pacha’s previous documentaries include The Seedkeepers, which explores a farming collective run by Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh, and The Women In Blue Berets, about an Indian all-woman police squad posted as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in war-torn Liberia. The resemblance of her documentary’s title to a line of dialogue from the Angelina Jolie action thriller Salt is sheer coincidence, she says. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
What inspired ‘My Name Is Salt’—was it the painstaking process and hardship involved, the rudimentary working and living conditions, the stoic people, or all of the above?
I would have to say all of the above. For me, the film is about work and the quest for perfection. The care with which this family works, the attention they pay to the tiniest details, the pride they take in their creation—and the stark landscape of the desert which both embodies this perfection and magnifies it—all of it resonated deeply within me. Perhaps this is something that I wish to reach in my own work.
Why did you choose the family we see in the film, and how did they react to being documented?
I had spent a lot of time in the desert living with different families during the course of researching this film; one of these families was Sanabhai’s. I was particularly drawn to them for several reasons: the generational aspect of the work that I wanted to portray was very clear in this one family unit; Sanabhai himself was a fascinating character—a strong-willed perfectionist dedicated to producing the best salt he could, qualities that I found very attractive; and lastly, the family was very open to the idea of being a part of the film.
This is very important because, in my opinion, it’s impossible to make a documentary with reluctant protagonists. As an aside, so far the only screening in India has been a private one for them in the desert. They thoroughly enjoyed the film, to the extent that when the projection ended they wanted it to start all over again!
The harvesting process is captured from different perspectives—close-ups, mid-shots, long shots, and across different time spans—day, midday, night. How did the cinematographer, Konermann, work?
Lutz used one camera, the Sony EX1R, throughout the entire shoot—a very basic, cheap camera with a fixed zoom lens. He did not want to risk changing lenses in a desert setting where there is always the chance of dust getting in. We didn’t have any rules on how much footage to shoot in a day. It depended on what was happening. There were days when we shot a lot and then there were days where we hardly shot at all.
I could not make a film about perfection and rigour without at least trying to emulate that rigour in the making of it. So, yes, it is a very carefully made observational film. What helped, of course, is that the work is very repetitive, so we could take our time to first understand what was going on and then frame accordingly. And we had to learn to trust that if we waited long enough, things would unfold in front of the camera.
You have recorded an entire production cycle, and it must have been nearly as challenging for your team as it is for the people who do it year after year.
We shot the film during one production cycle of eight months, with an additional brief shoot in the monsoon. Through these eight months, we made 10 trips to the desert. All in all, we spent about 60 days in the desert.
The shooting was hard, of course. It was intensely hot most of the time. There was no toilet, we had a limited supply of drinking water and a bucket wash only every four days. We were a team of just three people and had to lug all our equipment, including solar panels to charge the camera batteries, ourselves.
There is a rugged beauty to the images because of the desert location, the unrelenting light, and the austere surroundings. Yet, you don’t exoticize or romanticize the place or its people.
All through the making of this film, I lived with the fear that this would end up being just pretty images, picture postcards, if I may call it. On the one hand, there is an inherent beauty to the landscape and to their work, which is very rhythmic. Not to depict that would have been somehow untrue, though the quest was always to find images that went beyond beauty, that spoke to the viewer about more than just that. On the other hand, there is a tendency in documentary films for sloppily framed images to become the mark of “gritty reality”. And I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
A key aspect of the overall aesthetic is the minimal background score, the absence of a voice-over, and a lot of silence.
I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of silence in the film; rather, there are few spoken words. If you pay attention, you will hear a lot of sounds—the most important being the pump, which is like a heartbeat through the film. Then there are all the sounds associated with their labour—the soft sound of feet pressing the ground, the sharp sound of a nail being hammered in, and such. The soundscape is crucial to giving the viewer a sense of the world the family is living in.
As for a voice-over, I never felt the need for it. I had spent enough time observing the salt-making process to know that visually it was very clear. As for the end text, we did try putting it at the beginning of the film during editing. But neither the editor nor I liked it because suddenly all the mystery was lost. The viewer didn’t have to work at solving the mysteries herself; for instance, what are all these pipes they are unearthing for, or is the water they are pumping out potable?