My Name Is Salt follows a family who have moved their whole lives to Little Rann of Kutch in the state of Gujarat, India, where for eight months every year they make their living from the gruelling, arduous work of salt mining. The documentary follows every step of the immensely difficult process while keeping its distance, without commentary or any attempts at creating a narrative beyond quietly following the painstakingly slow method of extracting the precious white salt crystals.
The bleak, beautiful surroundings of the barren desert landscape provide a backdrop that emphasises the family’s singular focus on their labourious task. Every family member has a vital role to play in the rhythmic work of mining, from pumping water from underground, trampling the salt to stop it congealing, and eventually raking the small crystals. The thundering sound of the pump becomes the soundtrack to the film, a constant reminder of the mechanical process around which they have built their lives.
Interspersed with shots of the family’s rigourous, routine mining are moments of intimate domesticity, as the children play and cycle to school, a mother braids her daughter’s hair, and chapatis are flipped on a stove. Every year 40,000 people leave their villages to work on the 5,000 square kilometres of desert, and through this one isolated family a portrait of life among its surreal, harsh conditions is created. Their quiet, unselfconscious moments of pride and joy keep the film from concentrating on their struggle, instead forming a glimpse of familiar human emotion in an almost unimaginable world.
Sanabhai, the father of the family, takes great pleasure in the crystals he unearths, their pure white colour a symbol of his achievement over the past months. Eventually, with the family’s salt sold, the monsoon comes and turns the desert into a sea, removing any evidence they were ever there. But in just a few months the land will dry up, and their work will begin again.