Ranking: #110/111

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov (Georgia/Soviet)

Genre: Poetic Ethnographic Documentary

In the work of the Georgian-Soviet film director, Mikhail Kalatozov, the image always reigns supreme. This film is what I would call a poetic ethnographic documentary. He depicts the life documents the life of the Svan people as they eke out a tough existence in a remote mountain village called Ushguli in Svanetia. At the time, this formed part of the Soviet Republic.

Originally conceived as a fictional feature film, it became more of a documentary and its genre probably lies somewhere in-between the two. It’s best seen as a poetic film, a drama told through images. Sometimes, the style is quite expressionistic.

In the story, the villagers are wary of feudal overlords who want to tax them, although they are poverty-stricken. The village and its people are cut off from the outside world for most of the year and this leads to a lack of salt supplies. The shortage of salt is a health threat for humans and their animals. At one point, we witness the sad scene of animals licking human sweat and urine.

As some workers are busy bringing salt back to the village, they run into an avalanche which crushes many of them.

The salt shortage becomes an existential crisis. Finally, the situation is resolved when the Soviet authorities build a road to connect the village to modern civilisation. Teams of construction workers with their steamrollers pour into the area, cutting down a forest to make way for the road.

The artistic value of this great film from the silent era lies in some of the most powerful cinematic imagery you’re ever likely to see. In addition, the film is invested with the humanism typical of the Soviet school of Social Realism during the silent film era. The dignity of human labour is often emphasised in these Soviet movies.

Salt for Svanetia creates such powerful images that they sometimes seem almost indelible, including the shot of a mother squeezing the milk from her breast over the soil in which her dead child lies.

Kalatozov’s visual wizardry finds its fullest vindication much later in his career in his three masterpieces, The Cranes Are Flying, I Am Cuba and Letter Never Sent.