Grappling with the Elements
May24

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," 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...

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