Features

Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘Picture of Light’

Dir. Peter Mettler, 1994

Courtesy Peter Mettler


To make the mesmerising Picture of Light, Peter Mettler undertook a quixotic quest to capture one of the natural world’s most famous and dazzling spectacles, the northern lights. Yet some of the most startling sights to behold in the film are the products of more mundane circumstances than a wintry night sky illuminated by the aurora borealis.

One of the film’s strangest scenes, which resembles the work of Werner Herzog, begins with a man in a green parka sitting on a motel bed with a rifle in his lap. As a cigarette dangles from his lips, he explains his intention to fire a .22-calibre bullet into the wall and through it to a neighbouring snowbank. He states that a hole of the right size will produce “a rather unique-shaped drift” inside the room. After a complicated operation involving not just the rifle but also a crowbar, a hammer and the hotel’s heavily accented proprietor, the man’s prediction turns out to be correct. Any big-city installation artist would’ve killed to create the surreal architectural marvel that forms as a result of that bullet.

In the context of any other movie, this might merely seem like an especially fun and creative new way to pass the time while enduring a Canadian winter. But within Mettler’s thematically rich oeuvre, it points to many of his fundamental concerns, like the endlessly complex relationship with the world around us, the gulfs between visual representations and reality and our ceaseless efforts to wrest meaning and beauty from variables we can only pretend to anticipate or control.

The destination for Mettler’s journey is Churchill, Manitoba, where he hopes to film the essentially unfilmable phenomenon of the northern lights. Traveling 3,000 miles by train with his five-person crew, he moves through a landscape that seems every bit as unworldly as the Lights. Along the way, Mettler’s human interactions prove to be just as compelling as any of the scientific or folkloric aspects of his investigation into the phenomenon.

Indeed, what viewers of Picture of Light eventually see is not so much a direct representation of the aurora borealis as a virtual approximation; Mettler captured the otherwise elusive lights by shooting the sky at three frames per minute and then manipulating the results with an optical printer. Nevertheless, Picture of Light remains Mettler’s richest work both in terms of its themes and visual splendour.

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Excerpt 1: Picture of Light (1994), Dir. Peter Mettler from Grimthorpe Film on Vimeo.

Jason Anderson writes about film and music for such publications as Cinema Scope, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Movie Entertainment and the Toronto Star. He teaches criticism and feature writing at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

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