THE WHITE DIAMOND
Directed by Werner Herzog (2004)
Werner Herzog's The White Diamond, a documentary about the exploits of Dr. Graham Dorrington, an engineer at St. Mary's College in London, England, might have been called "Little Graham Needs To Fly". Dorrington is a solitary dreamer who is eager to explore wilderness areas and tropical rain forests in a helium-filled airship. In particular, he wants to explore the rainforest canopy of Guyana and Werner Herzog brings his camera and his best narrative voice along for the ride. The film is both the story of a man and his dreams and an ode to an unspoiled wilderness that has so far withstood man's insatiable need for "progress".
Like other Herzog films I have seen recently, there are moments of involving action pitting man against nature, along with stretches of dullness and sudden outbursts of enormous beauty. Just to watch the flocks of swifts fly in formation above Kaieteur Falls, a waterfall four times the height of Niagara, backed by the cello of Ernst Reijseger and the chorus of the Tenore E Cuncordu de Orosei, is an experience in itself worth the price of admission.
The film begins with a brief overview of the history of flight including scenes of the horrific crash of the Hindenburg Zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, a tragedy that ended the dream of travel in lighter than air vehicles. The film then shifts to Guyana where Dorrington is in the process of assembling a two-person airship to help him make his journey and confront his past demons. Dieter is a thoughtful man though given to childlike outbursts of enthusiasm. He dreams of "drifting with the motors off in the peace and quiet, quietly floating above these forests in the mist". Though Herzog seems to want to portray all his protagonists as slightly mad, Dorrington appears too grounded to fulfill the director's wishes. His purpose contains elements of both inner and outer exploration. He wants to move on from a tragic accident that occurred eleven years ago when his friend and companion Dieter Plage was killed while flying one of his airships.
Dorrington is reluctant at first to discuss Dieter and his tragic end, but later recounts in agonizing detail the precise details of the accident for which he blames himself. In a scene later revealed to have been staged, Herzog and Graham argue about whether cameras should be allowed on the test flight of his airship christened The White Diamond by a local miner, but Herzog prevails because he fears that it may be the only flight that will take place. We sense throughout the early part of the film that any flight is dangerous and extreme precautions are taken to ensure safety. There are other peripheral characters that we have come to expect from Herzog.
A young cook does a Michael Jackson dance to hip hop music while standing on the edge of a cliff and we meet Mark Anthony Yhap, a diamond miner whose eloquent philosophy contrasts sharply with the more inner-directed Dorrington and he waxes poetic when talking about his beloved rooster. Yhap is a Rastafarian, an African religion that believes that Haile Sellassie is the living God. Yhap wants to fly so that he can visit his family in Spain whom he hasn't seen in many years and his contact information appears in the credits. All this is peripheral to the main event, however, and as we soar over the rainforest, we forget Herzog's description of nature as "a brutal place full of murder and cruel indifference" and simply bathe in its majesty.