The Director of ‘Salero’ Doc On the Mind-Altering Power of the World’s Largest Salt Flat

In his first feature-length documentary Salero, director Mike Plunkett travels to Bolivia to tell the story of Moises Chambi Yucra, a man who makes a living for him and his family by harvesting salt from the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Through beautifully shot footage of Moises working on the white landscape and the poetic words he uses to describe his work as a salero (salt gatherer), Plunkett explores one man’s occupation, which has defined him his entire life, and what happens when that life is no longer sustainable.

During an interview with Remezcla, Plunkett talked about what he saw in Moises that made him want to tell his story and what it was like for him the first time he stood on the vast salt flats that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Salero premieres at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 30 at 3:15pm. Encore screenings take place May 1 at 1pm in Berkeley and May 3 at 3:30pm at the Roxie Theater. 

On the inspiration behind making the film

I was really struck by the images of the landscape [of the Salar de Uyuni]. This place was like a character. I decided I had to go [to Bolivia] and be on this crazy, surreal, moonlike salt flat. So, I tracked down this guy who had taken photos of [the salt flats] for some publications. It turned out that he had previously been the videographer for [Bolivian] President [Evo] Morales. He had all these connections. So, we just went down there. It was wild. I was really looking for a voice of the salt flats. I found that in Moises.

On finding the salero he would feature in his documentary

I just started walking around the salar and tried to strike up conversations with saleros. I spoke to a lot of people. Many of the men were much older. I would ask them questions about their future and about their hopes and dreams, but a lot of them didn’t have very much to say. Moises was the youngest guy that I met when I was down there. We spoke on the salt flat for a couple of hours and then he invited me back to his house to meet his family.

On the poetic way Moises speaks about his job

“When you’re driving out there [on the salar], it feels like you’re like in a sailboat on the ocean.”

People always ask me if I scripted his voice over, but I didn’t script any of it. He just has this way of making everything he says prophetic. He’s a poet. The way he talks about his life was like this universal story. He’s younger than I am, but he is so wise beyond his years. He somehow has this innate wisdom about the world.

On standing on the salt flats for the first time

It’s really hard to describe, but it had a really profound effect on me. The salt flat is about the size of the state of Connecticut. When you’re driving out there, it feels like you’re like in a sailboat on the ocean. Only on the salt flats, you can step out of your boat and walk on the water. It’s incredible. It’s hard to judge distance. It’s very disorientating. It has a power over you psychologically. You feel the presence of the landscape. It’s something Moises is tapped into in a very deep way.

On the decline of the salt industry and the impact he saw it take on Moises

When we started filming, there were 300 saleros working on the salar. Four years later, there was no one left. It was sad for him to give that up. He saw himself as someone who was carrying the torch for the saleros. His father was a salero. His grandfather was a salero. The idea that he wouldn’t pass that on to his sons touched him. I think that was a big part of his internal struggle throughout the film. The idea of being a salero for him was a state of mind. He’s going to carry it on in his heart even if he can’t do the work anymore.