The Quotidian Cosmic Compound

Dust (Staub)

on November 20, 2008 by Cathleen Rountree
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“Dust has no home of its own, so it spreads everywhere and leaves the trace of a fundamental denial.” Huh?? An engagingly philosophic approach to a mundane topic, this German documentary visits a variety of disciplines--art, anthropology, biology, geography, history, chemistry--as it answers its essential question: What is dust? We learn that it is a mixture of particles that can take various forms, colors, and sizes, and different physical and chemical characteristics, from colored pigments to clouds, from human skin to uranium. As instructive and illuminating (and often amusing) as Dust may be, it’s hard to imagine audiences packing theatres (other than at film festivals), which is a shame, because Dust affords a look at a fascinating phenomenon.

Hartmut Bitomsky, the film’s director, isn’t the only one to wax metaphysical about dust. Scientists, business owners, artists, and haus fraus marvel that dust is a “kind of proto-matter,” or a “phantom particle,” a “contemporary witness,” or “the personal cloud around us.” At a gem factory we learn that gold dust doesn’t float; it’s so heavy, it falls like raindrops. At a science lab we learn that, without dust, there would be no sky: no blue, no magenta, no sunset; and that 95% of house dust is comprised of particles of our own skin and hair as well as those of our domestic animals. So household dust means we’re always, literally, cleaning up after ourselves.

Health professionals explain how dust units form thick cumulus coal clouds during mining and refining, and these clouds can float 4,000 kilometers over the Earth’s surface and disperse nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals into the environment. Asbestos, a fibrous dust-like material, enters our bodies (like coal) through our lungs, where it can cause fatal cancer that can go undetected for 40 years. Geologists describe how 25% of the populations of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico were forced to flee during the 1932 Dust Bowl and left behind a land that looked like the Sahara Desert. They trace sands from the Sahara that reach as far north as the Swiss Alps. And, during a visit to a German dust lab, where the manager leads a tour of the facilities and depicts their purpose and function, Bitomsky flashes images of collapsing Twin World Trade Center towers on September 11th. We learn that afterwards traces of building materials, soot, mineral wool, paper, glass fibers, cellulose, pesticides, a slew of chemical compounds most of us have never heard of, radioactive nuclides, formaldehyde, metal particles, arsenic, airplane fuel, and an organic substance that was only later identified as the “human dust” of nearly 3,000 victims, was found in the lungs of fire-fighters and clean-up crews.

Finally, the film reveals that scientific dust collectors have discovered dust compounds they cannot positively identify, but believe originated in as yet unknown space galaxies, where dust colliding with dust created the universe. This fluid, associative study of the ubiquitous substance that created the cosmos and causes illness, reminds us that dust serves as a kind of archive of our life and a record of what has happened and, perhaps, what’s yet to come.

Distributor: Icarus Films
Director: Hartmut Bitomsky
Producer: Heino Deckert
Genre : Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: December 3 NY

Tags: Hartmut Bitomsky, Heino Deckert, Documentary, Icarus Films
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