Review: My Name is Salt Mat Paskins

Farida Pacha’s documentary film My Name is Salt depicts a family producing salt in the Little Rann of Kutch, in the Indian state of Gujarat. The family’s work is depicted through long, quiet, and mesmeric shots; we see Devuben and her husband Sanabhai, together with their children and other relatives arrive; set up camp; massage each others’ hands when they are exhausted. Scenes are underpinned with the chucking sound of the diesel-powered pump, and we see the family members tread the ground of the crystallising salt. In irritation or despair, Sanabhai tells one of his daughters that mud would not adhere to her tool if she had cleaned it properly; she shrugs, and continues to work. At a certain point the pump breaks down and has to be mended; this moment of quite excruciating tension is the dramatic highpoint of the film. We see the father anxious that the salt is good, and then when it is ready, boastful that next time he will refuse to sell the salt for so little.

Pacha’s own description of the film emphasises the lyrical qualities of the family’s labour, as well as its arduousness: “Their labour is rhythmic, a dance that mirrors the dance of the mirages on the burning horizon. The white crystals are as sharp as glass. Only two of them have rubber boots.” It opens with a quotation from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and the sense of a labour which is noble in part because of its futility (as the monsoons will flood the salt-fields, and in the film’s final shots we see people navigate the ground by boat) pervades the film and shapes its narrativesAs Pacha writes in her 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?

The most obvious answer to Pacha’s question about the meaning of the salt-maker’s activity – that they do it in order to make money to survive — is not one which the film is willing to interrogate. Indeed, Pacha argues that this allows the film to put across the “philosophy of taking pleasure in one’s work” because the farmers are “not tired of the monotony” of their work, and this is something we all should learn, “the need to enjoy what you are doing instead of just carrying it out for the sake of responsibility or money.” Some of the film’s reviewers have concurred with the director’s view. Leslie Felperin, writing for the Guardian, describes  My Name is Salt as a “mesmerising, lyrical work about endurance, craftsmanship and family dynamics, all unfolding in a stunningly bleak landscape, where abandoned bicycles and machinery pepper the ground.”

Others, however, have been more sceptical of the film’s narrative construction, and particularly the absence of any self-awareness regarding the interaction between the family and the film-makers. A narrative fourth wall is preserved throughout, and this serves to make the film resemble naturalistic drama rather than a documentary storyline. Dialogue is overheard, rather than addressed directly to the camera. Hannah McGillreviewing the film for Sight and Sound magazine, was perturbed by this illusion of naturalism, arguing that the film objectified the family, In particular, she  observed that Pacha’s notes had described the terrible exploitation from which the salt producers suffered – but that the film “chiefly communicates […] not injustice or suffering so much as a simple commitment to getting a job done in the face of continual small obstacles.”

Watching the film, I felt much of the force of McGill’s criticism, and quite impatient with Pacha’s cinematic ‘philosophy’. We seem to have privileged access to the family’s life, even to the quiet words exchanged in desperation late at night.  Because the film refuses to explore the artifice of its construction, however, we don’t know how far the family are reacting to the camera’s external eye. This brings the whole project disturbingly close to a kind of reality television. At the same time, the film draws considerable power from the way it testifies to the difficulty of interpreting exploitative situations without a wider economic and social context, while also presenting rich details of working practices and environment. Pacha’s refusal to supply the broader context, and tendency to present the family’s  labour as existing in a mythic rather than an historical time,  renders the events depicted enigmatic and often frustrating. They seem to cry out for explanation and analysis while the hushed tone of the action and focus on the individual acts of production and care also emphasises the family’s insularity and remoteness.

In her review, McGill asks “is this a portrait of exploitation, or simply one of work”: underlying this question is the assumption that we would know how to interpret a narrative of one or the other. But so much of what we see here is much more ambiguous than that. Thus, I think, we interpret Sanabhai’s anxious negotiations with the merchants, the difficult and evidently physically painful nature of the work, and the glittering landscape of the desert itself in lyrical terms precisely because we don’t know how to read them. How much work is too much? How has the desert ecology changed, and how have the family responded to these changes? Why is Sanabhai so worried about the quality of his salt when no one else seems especially concerned? This resistance to interpretation  might be seen as a strength – albeit an ambiguous one – because it invites us to consider how we read exploitation into particular local situations. I wondered how the film would look to someone who knew the desert well enough to read indications of a changing climate, or who understood the techniques for farming salt crystals profitably. What type of document might this film be for a future viewer, if the desert ceases to be used in this way? Its meditative pace invites these questions, and the constant attention to the way these people interact with their surroundings in the course of their work acts as a reminder that histories of labour are always environmental histories as well.

In other ways, however, the film’s refusal to offer interpret can be regarded as colluding with the structures and practices which render salt-farmers anonymous, deprive them of  agency or lead to social conflict. There is no evidence within the films of the significant ecological changes from which the desert has suffered in recent years – nor of the significant conflicts in the region between salt farmers and conservationists. Nor do we hear about the symbolic historical associations of salt farming in the region ( for instance with Gandhi’s legendary Salt March), or the gender politics of such production, or the reasons diesel pumps are employed in place of bullocks as a result of the sinking of underground brine levels. To judge from her comments about the film, Pacha would regard inclusion of these considerations as unduly ‘didactic’. In the process, and despite its considerable strengths, her film deprives the people she depicts of the power to talk about their own history, and the dreams and struggles which may also infuse their days.