There are moments in Farida Pacha’s film My Name is Salt, when the compelling silence — barring a series of natural sounds, like that of bare feet treading the moist mud or gurgling water in the salt pans — gives way to a sense of clarity. There is no narrator, nor any voice-over.
As Zurich-based Pacha’s camera settles down like the dust against the yellow ombre sky and the nude-tinged saline earth of Little Rann of Kutch, the clarity comes despite the monotony of the desert. It comes with the family of Sanabhai, who have inhabited a small piece of land for eight months, and with the small parched piece of land they have laboriously converted to produce the purest, whitest salt.
Pacha’s film about salt harvesters of Gujarat, which has already done the rounds of prestigious international film festivals since it had its World Premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (IDFA) last year, has bagged the Best Documentary Feature Film at the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. It also picked up the First Appearance at IDFA (2013), Firebird Award at Hong Kong Film Festival (2014) and Feature Length at Documenta, Madrid, 2014.
“The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart,” the film begins with Albert Camus’ famous quote, referring to the story of endless toil and perfection by Greek king Sisyphus. “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,” says the 42-year-old filmmaker.
My Name is Salt starts with a family on a truck locating to a small patch of land in Little Rann of Kutch, and quietly but diligently building a home to churn out the salt beneath the cracked surface. Theirs is the microcosmic universe Pacha celebrates and her minimalistic approach allows no frills or flair — dialogues are few and spontaneous, and long pensive close-ups of the family members create a sensitive atmosphere.
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The 90-minute film, which was shot between October 2009 to May 2010, takes the form of cinema verite (observational cinema), has a carefully designed structure — it’s direct, distant and plays with the innate poetic sensibilities of a landscape such as the desert. “The poetic element was already there. We didn’t have to do much to add on to it. However, when we started shooting, we were a little unprepared. As a documentary filmmaker, one becomes so afraid to miss out on something,” says Pacha.
She had initially set off to make a film on the NGOs that teach the children in the desert, which is featured briefly in the film, but realised that it cannot be done “without the salt”. That led to her to make her first contact in 2005-2006. In fact, Pacha, who is from Gujarat, had no trouble connecting.
“Their Gujarati is similar to mine, except their accent and vocabulary,” says Pacha, who has previously made documentaries such as From Bombay to Mumbai (2000), The Seedkeepers (2005), which won the National Award for Best Agricultural Film and The Women in Blue Berets (2012). But this film is a first of its kind. “I have done interviews in my other films, but nothing like this. There are observational films that I like, such as Into Great Silence and Quince Tree of the Sun. It is the kind of cinema you don’t see anymore,” says Pacha.
Another element that maintains My Name is Salt’s crisp format is music by Swiss composer Marcel Vaid, who has created a soundscape of instrumentals that breezes in and out of the scene sequence. It is set to be screened next at the DokuFest in Kosova and Melbourne International Film Festival, among others. For the time being, she is keeping her fingers crossed for the film’s selection at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, this year and getting a distributer by the year end.