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Dust

by Hartmut Bitomsky, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2008
Video-DVD, 90 mins., col.
Sale/DVD: $440
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Nameera Ahmed
Pakistan

nameeraa@gmail.com

Approaching its subject from the least obvious perspective for the audience, but probably the closest to the filmmaker, the film ‘Dust begins with exploring the filmic aspect of dust. With a scene from a black and white film of horse riders fighting a dust storm in a desert, the film ‘Dust takes the audience straight to the problem that dust creates for the filmmaker: “film material is nothing but dust” the narrator tells us. “Dust is the smallest object a film can deal with”, “particles with a diameter” while the audience is transported from the dust storm in the archival footage to present-day shots of a film camera being cleaned, and a voiceover informs us, “film…is dust lighting up in the darkness of a movie theatre”. The filmmaker compares the film and dust grain: “They speak of a dust grain. They speak of a film grain. It’s the smallest visual unit in which the film stock itself becomes visible.” Dust forms the foundation of the medium of film both in terms of the film grain as well as forming an impediment to it in the form of film dust, dirt, and scratches. The filmmaker must most respectfully remove dirt and dust from the camera and lens.

“Removing dust is a job and a business”. The next sequence is of an office cleaner wiping desks, monitors, and chairs early in the morning before the workers come in. The mundane yet impossible battle is implied here, starting from the early morning, to exterminate dust. From the office, the filmmaker takes us to a ‘dead’ construction site, an abandoned complex on the outskirts of Berlin, where cement dust, a “grayish white powder like dirty snow”, and broken window panes are reminders of death in an uncanny looking landscape. Work here stopped many years ago, and time seems to have come to a standstill. The filmmaker removes the different layers of meaning like an archaeologist digging up the past. ’Wherever we drop the work and life comes to a standstill, dust collects’. As a contrast to the wasted landscape of the deserted complex, the following scene shows the very dynamic side of human activity: a stone quarry being blown up with dynamite, but revealed to us in slow motion to familiarize us with this aesthetics of chaos. “The world gets broken down to pieces”. Dust unto dust.

After having introduced its audience to the dubious and callous omnipresence of dust, the film suddenly transports them to a scientific laboratory, in an attempt to comfort them it seems, where scientists in white coats are busy collecting dust. In an effort to regulate this unruly physical matter, a scientist demonstrates the design and function of a dust filter with the backdrop of an immaculate dust-free laboratory. We need not worry as a comforting female voice of a scientist seems to occasion control over chaos by showing us this device. To better understand this phenomenon, from here, the film takes us on a journey to the discovery of the various aspects of dust, and how people in various fields are trying to comprehend it. It seems those who cannot fight it, decide to befriend this uncontrollable matter, endeavouring to tame it, by sometimes storing it in neat little boxes and sometimes making magnified paintings of microscopic dust grains and particles.

The visual language of the film itself complements this ongoing struggle, with its ‘clean’ and ‘dust-free’ shots as if the film has tried to wipe off all dirt from itself. With ‘neat’ cinematography, the visual language of the film, with its extremely pensive, slow and ‘tidy’ camera movements and camera angles, tries to defy the chaotic nature of dust. It aims at an aesthetic of cleanliness, as it tries to impose a certain method to the madness of its subject. The ‘clean’ visual language of the film is complemented by an equally ‘quiet’ and uncluttered soundscape resting on ‘silence’, with minimal ambient sounds. The epitome thus becomes the scene where an art gallery caretaker cleans the dust off artworks meticulously, with a small brush in a pristine white-walled environment, the only sounds to be heard being those of his brush moving along the artworks in slow but steady movements.

Arousing our curiosity in this mundane phenomenon, and making us ponder its various forms and existences, ‘Dust explores its subject from all possible perspectives, itself posing as the laboratory where we can examine our subject with much scrutiny. The film takes us on a journey into this unexplored world, almost Jules Verne style, from the scientific, artistic, historical, astronomic, photographic, filmic; housewives’, painters’, pigment manufacturers’, construction-workers’, biologists’, hobbyists’, and physicists’ perspectives, from stone quarries, to artist’s studios, to pigment factories, to vacuum cleaner factories, from a fluff-collector’s lab and gold factories to slag dumps. ”It has no home of its own…it spreads everywhere”, is the underlying feature highlighted in the film. We return to the archival scene where people walking through the dust storm alongside their carriages are stopped by a horseman shouting to the group: “Hey water! Water in sight!” The scene cuts to contemporary colour images of dark clouds in the sky with the same voice saying, “There’s a river over here!” while we watch the black clouds and wonder how dust gives colour to the sky, and realize that “without dust, there’d be no sky”!


1 December, 2008->->->->->->->->->

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