Introduction by Karim
I am very grateful to my dear friend and former MIT classmate Professor Jayasinhji Jhala (Jayabapa), Vice Chairman of The Bored and documentary filmmaker, for alerting me to the remarkable work of documentary filmmaker Farida Pacha, which led to this interview with Farida about her documentary feature film, My Name Is Salt. Jayabapa sent a note to Bored Members Kevin McGrath and me requesting us to watch the trailer of My Name Is Salt in which he wrote:
Please see this short video trailer on the documentary film, My Name Is Salt. It tells you of the wonderful desert that is 30 minutes from where we live at Halvad in the summer during the India program. We will walk this desert, in a walking sunrise meditation and will visit the shrines of medieval warriors who died protecting the large herds of cattle that mark this salt land.
This brief note from Jayabapa gave me goosebumps.
My forefathers were Gujarati salt pan laborers who worked in the desert of the Rann of Kutch.
One hundred years ago, my paternal grandfather left his village of Kathiawar in Gujarat at the age of 17 to emigrate to British East Africa. My dad was born in Tanganyika when it was a German colony and I was born in Kenya when it was still a British colony. The East African chapter of our family history was relatively new. The previous chapter in western India, in Gujarat, went back to generations of salt pan workers. When I was a boy, my grandfather told me stories of the work ethic and hardihood of his forefathers who toiled in the merciless hot sun as salt laborers.
Jayabapa’s note on Farida’s film reminded me that my family history is preserved in salt.
Karim’s interview with documentary filmmaker Farida Pacha
Farida, tell me about your documentary feature film, My Name Is Salt.
This is not a social issue film Karim, 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.
This is a purely observational film – there are no interviews or voice-over.
The style of the documentary is lyrical and poetic but very austere. The camera work is slow, takes are long, images are carefully juxtaposed. The camera, though distant from the subject, is still able to establish a delicate intimacy.
Repetitiveness is a strong motif in the film. We see it in the unchanging landscape of the desert, in the patterns of the day, in the monotony of their work. The film creates a world of endless toil which is nonetheless fascinating, hypnotic in its slow rhythms.
The film does not leave the space of the desert for its entire duration.
The outside world is featured only as it makes its presence felt in the desert: the salt supervisor’s visits, the water tanker’s weekly call, an occasional fish seller, trucks that come to collect the salt at the end of the season. The desert is the core of the film – this stunning, unusual setting is exploited fully so that the desert becomes a character: strange, illusory, mesmerising, hard.
In the film, time is slow, just as it is in the desert. As viewers we are given the space to meditate on a different experience of time; to sense things, to perceive a whole visual and acoustic universe, to be able to make the leap from the natural world to a more poetic, abstract level.
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.
After obtaining a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in filmmaking at Southern Illinois University, USA, Farida has made several experimental, educational and documentary films.
Her documentary The Seedkeepers won the 2006 Indian National Film Award.
My Name is Salt is her first feature length documentary which won her among many others the First Appearance Award at IDFA 2013, Amsterdam as well as the main prizes at Hong Kong, Madrid and Edinburgh. To visit the website of My Name Is Salt kindly click here.