Dir/scr: Jiska Rickels. Neth. 2006. 89mins.
Jiska Rickels' makes an impressive debut with feature-documentary 4 Elements, a self-consciously poetic film essay that has limited narration and little in the way of dialogue. Consisting of four self-contained segments, each representing one of the four elements - fire, water, earth and air - it depends on Rickels' eye for imagery for its impact. But if the director's overall intentions in making it are sometimes hard to surmise, it is still far more compelling to watch than might be expected, thanks to its feel for the natural world, its lyricism, its inventive use of music and sound, and its frequently spectacular sequences of protagonists engaged in tough and dangerous pursuits.
4 Elements opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2006 in late November prior to its limited theatrical release (on 13 prints) to enthusiastic reviews in the Netherlands through A-Film. It is already generating plenty of interest among major festivals and may also pique the curiosity of adventurous arthouse distributors further afield. 4 Elements lacks the scale or impact of, say, Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, and its crossover potential into the mainstream is limited, but it is still a film that can travel and ought to be accessible to audiences anywhere.
The film opens with firefighters in Russia trying to put out a forest blaze. Next, we see king crab fishermen battling gigantic waves on the Bering Sea in Alaska. Then we head underground with workers in a German mine (this section was actually Rickels' graduation film). The final segment is set in Star City in Russia where we see cosmonauts being put through their paces.
For all the sturm und drang - the furious forest fires, sequences showing the waves battering the fishermen, miners in the bowels of the earth - the most resonant moments here are often the quietest. Rickels has an eye for striking images: for example a miner with a blackened face eating a very white apple; or a fisherman using a blowtorch to light a cigarette.
The shots of the miners coming up from their shift are well observed and have a surprising delicacy. We see burly men wiping the coal dust off each others' backs or slouching across the changing room looking like weary bears. There is a warmth in these scenes that is completely lacking in the cold and impersonal final section, with the Russian cosmonauts being tested as if they are guinea pigs in Star City. Rickels observes her protagonists, who all work in groups and are heavily dependent on one another, with an almost anthropological curiosity.
On a technical level 4 Elements also impresses. Rickels and her small team reportedly spent four years making the documentary, and it clearly took courage and great technical resourcefulness to get so close to their subjects and to film them in such precarious situations. There is an epic scale about the project.
The decision to use impressionistic music (composed by the director's father Horst Rickel) and sound, yet not include interviews, means that there is a lack of context. This is both a strength - it gives the film a timeless and strangely eerie quality - and a weakness: audiences are likely to be curious about just when and where the documentary was shot and want to know more about some of the characters portrayed. In interviews, Rickels has revealed that the mine in which she shot the 'Earth' sequence has now closed, but we are given no hint as we watch the film that the workers are shortly to lose their jobs.
Nor are there any obvious environmental or political messages that the documentary seeks to impart. Rickels' basic point appears to be that despite huge technological advances, human beings are still in thrall to the four primordial elements.
Nederlandse Film En Televisie Academie
San Fu Maltha
Martijn van Broekhuizen