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Grappling with the Elements

The movie opens on an industrial wasteland. Big vats of nitric acid stand out against a gray sky, the acrid smell of nitrogen dioxide hangs in the air, and discarded circuit boards litter the desolate landscape. It looks like a scene from a sci-fi film taking place in some dystopian future. But it’s not. Rather, this image of present-day India sets the tone for British filmmaker Mike Paterson’s short documentary “Copper: Acid & Dust,”

94 Elements poster: What Dimitri Mendeleev would have hung up in his dorm room. Credit: 94 Elements

one of several films created for the ambitious 94 Elements project in which filmmakers will create a short documentary exploring each of the 94 naturally occurring elements, everything from hydrogen to plutonium. The project is an opportunity for Paterson and a host of other notable filmmakers to explore the more human side of the periodic table.

“Copper,” for instance, tells the story of a group of teenage Indian boys who, having left behind the agricultural practices of their rural state of Bihar, now mine second-hand electronic circuit boards for copper and other metals. Placing the cast-off boards inside nitric acid solutions, the boys are able to extract copper from between the boards’ epoxy resin layers and then sell the copper to factories. According to Paterson, this practice is illegal in India, due largely to the toll the extraction process takes on the environment: One of the by-products of the process is the aforementioned nitrogen dioxide.

Paterson found this juxtaposition between the agricultural and industrial practices of his film’s subjects particularly inspiring during the creation of his documentary. “The similarities between the work they were doing with the copper and the agricultural, laboring work struck me very strongly,” he tells Newscripts. “They’re farming the copper now rather than farming the land, but the unfortunate side effect is that their work is highly polluting to the land.”

“Copper” is one of the four documentaries that has already been completed for 94 Elements, and it’s not the only one to contemplate humanity’s relationship with the chemical elements. “Gadolinium”—by the winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Directing Award for a documentary, Nino Kirtadze—tells the story of Levan, a man who has just undergone an MRI scan and must wait for a specialist to properly diagnose his condition. “Germanium,” by Paterson, follows a number of patients as they receive cataract surgery at New Delhi’s Venu Eye Institute & Research Centre. And “Oxygen,” a documentary by British Academy of Film & Television Arts award-winning filmmaker Marc Isaacs, captures a night in the life of Bob, a former ballet dancer whose cigarette habit has left him with a respiratory illness that renders him bedridden and completely reliant on his oxygen tank.

“I was just intrigued to use an element that would allow me to do what I usually do, which is to make a very human film,” says Isaacs of his reason for choosing to make a documentary inspired by oxygen. The film is “essentially about life and death, really. We all have to breathe,” he laughs.

For Paterson, who also serves as project director of 94 Elements, Isaacs’ comments ring true for the entire film project. “We don’t pitch it as a science project,” Paterson explains. “We pitch it as a project of human stories.”

Industrial wastelands, MRIs, cataract surgeries, and bedridden ballerinas might not sound like the most laid-back of ways in which to explore the human condition, but Paterson says the themes of these initial four films aren’t necessarily setting the tone for the rest of the project. New entries will soon be released into the series, and the “immediate priority with these next few films is to get some lighter films there because at the moment the balance isn’t quite right,” he explains. “Overall the films will be a mix of light and dark and all shades in between.”

To keep the films coming, Paterson has set up a website to serve as a hub for 94 Elements. There, filmmakers can pitch ideas for their own documentaries, and contributors to the 94 Elements’ online fund-raising campaign can vote on which ideas they like best. The website also features the Mix Lab, an interactive dashboard in the shape of the periodic table. Mix Lab visitors can drag and drop chemical elements together to watch films that explore topics beyond the 94 naturally occurring elements. By combining sodium and chlorine, for instance, visitors can watch the trailer to “Salt,” a documentary chronicling one artist’s visit to the Lake Eyre salt flats of Australia.

According to Paterson, the 94 Elements website is currently in a beta stage. The hope is to update it so that films are housed within a dynamic version of the periodic table that provides data related to the commodity prices and recycling rates associated with particular chemical elements. It will also link to information concerning those elements’ overall global abundance. Paterson hopes that such a design will help people think about the ways in which they engage the world around them. “Just getting people to think about where all this stuff comes from and what we do with it once we’ve used it, in a very playful and creative way, is the ultimate aim of it,”  Paterson says. “The key word is sustainability.”

Paterson’s dream of making a film inspired by each of the 94 naturally occurring elements may sound ambitious, but it’s not without precedent.

The Periodic Table of Videos is a project involving chemists at the University of Nottingham that features clips about each chemical element in existence. These videos show scientists in the lab discussing the delights of chemistry and star “The Professor,” mop-topped Martyn Poliakoff.

Other artists who have set lofty goals for themselves in terms of producing prolific work around a particular subject haven’t been quite as successful. In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The Canterbury Tales” and imagined that the story’s 30 characters would each tell four tales during their pilgrimage to and from Canterbury Cathedral. More recently, musician Sufjan Stevens made headlines for announcing plans to make one album dedicated to each of the 50 U.S. states (see, for instance, Illinoise). Unfortunately, neither of these dreams has come to fruition. Chaucer never completed “The Canterbury Tales,” and Stevens appears to have abandoned his state project altogether, given that his last album, “The Age of Adz,” didn’t focus on a state at all.

Paterson, however, remains unfazed by the ambitious nature of his project. In fact, he anticipates completing 94 Elements within the next two to three years. It’s a quick turnaround for sure, but it seems obtainable given the momentum-building reception Paterson’s project has already received from the chemistry community. “What the project is trying to do in drawing out the way that chemistry underlies everything,” he says, ”has got a fantastic response from chemists.”

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