Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The White Diamond

Werner Herzog once again goes back to the South American Rainforrest, the setting of his feature films Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. This time Herzog is in Guyana, one of the less known countries of the continent. A small country, with just 700,000 inhabitants, Guyana shares more in common both historically and culturally with the Caribbean Islands than with its giant neighbours to the south. Herzog is in Guyana to meet Dr Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer who is in the jungle to test his latest airship. The story is tinged with sadness though as in a previous test ten years earlier, Dorrington’s cinematographer Dieter Plage was killed.

The film begins with a brief history of aviation and in particular the history of the airship. Herzog discusses the rapid rise and fall of the popularity of airships before and after the Hindenburg disaster. Herzog first meets Dorrington in his lab in London. He is an excitable and intelligent man with grand ambitions of soaring above the jungle canopy, capturing its unspoiled beauty and collecting samples that could be used in the Pharmaceutical Industry. Dorrington is eccentric but focussed and it is obvious how much the expedition and test means to him. The tragedy of ten years earlier is only briefly mentioned and leaves the viewer hanging.

Once the action moves to the jungle, the expedition is hit with various problems. There is a bad omen from the outset as a huge storm draws in when the ship is first inflated. Lightning is seen cracking in the background, beneath and deep grey sky. There are more problems as the ship suffers seven technical faults on its maiden flight and the excitable and enthusiastic Dorrington looks like a broken man by the mid point of the film. It is during these initial tests that Herzog meets the stat of the show, a local man named Marc Anthony Yhap. Yhap and other local men were hired to help carry the equipment but when the craft is first inflated, Herzog notices him starring up in wonder at the ‘White Diamond’ as he calls it. Herzog uses a trick that served him well on Into the Abyss which is to leave the camera rolling once a person has stopped talking. This pressures them into continuing and means they often reveal more. Yhap, despite no formal education speaks with great wisdom and authority and tells the story of his families migration to Europe in the 1960’s, leaving him alone. He tells Herzog how much he misses them and hopes that his mother in Spain is able to watch the film. It’s a poignant moment.   

Once the problems have been ironed out and the airship is flying, Herzog is able to capture some quite extraordinary visuals of the jungle canopy. I watch a lot of Nature Documentaries but this is some of the most incredible footage I’ve seen. There is one shot in which a camouflaged frog appears to be playing hide and seek with the camera, slowly moving around a branch as the camera follows. It is simply stunning. The most beautiful shot of the film though is thanks to Yhap who takes Herzog through the jungle where he is able to see an entire waterfall through a single drop of rain. It is a majestic sight. A later shot which shows symmetry of the waterfall and thousands of swooping Swallows is also masterful.

The relief on Dorrington’s face after his successful flight is palpable. It looks as though a huge weight has been lifted and it is only then, an hour into the film that he reveals to the camera what happened on that fateful day, ten years ago. The story is heartbreaking and makes you realise why Dorrington has come back to complete this test.

This is among Herzog’s best documentaries. He has managed to find another engaging story with a single man facing danger and battling against the odds (a constant Herzogian theme). The visuals are stunning and the narrative is informative and exciting. In Dorrington and Yhap, Herzog has discovered two more remarkable characters and the world is better for having them documented.     


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