There's always a trace you'll never get." Indeed, dust is as ubiquitous as it is unremarkable. It is both the byproduct of human industry and what accretes once our industriousness has stopped. It is a bugaboo for museum preservationists, vacuum cleaner engineers, and clean room custodians. It is the cosmic prima materia from which the universe was born and to which we will all return long after the worms have had their fill. And as we are reminded in the documentary's opening frames, dust is the very substance of film itself. What we watch are the shadows of dust, shot through with light.
From an industrial paints manufacturer, to a frighteningly OCD housewife, to a sweetly loopy artist who creates sculptural dust taxonomies, to military scientists testing for radioactive fallout from ballistics currently being used in Iraq, Bitomksy lets his unnamed subjects speak with little interruption on their Sisyphean efforts to analyze, sift through, and eradicate dust. At times, the extended and often extremely technical explanations of particle acceleration and filtration assembly can be tryingly dry. But the straightforward and de-personalized presentation of information is fitting with the film's po-faced tone.
Bitomsky's deadpan facade is tied on extra-tight. But faint traces of a smirk can be made out whenever he pauses on a particularly cruel irony (for instance, when he quotes military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz over photos of American and Iraqi babies deformed by in utero exposure to depleted uranium dust) or takes note of a pathetic one (a hulking, former GDR housing block imploded to make way for a shopping mall). As entropic as it is constant, dust is indifferent to human life or regime change.
Gianvito's film clearly seeks to offer a momentary defense against our country's tendency toward historical amnesia, though it also suggests that history may be one more notch on finitude's marble bedpost. For Bitomsky, on the other hand, history is a dustbin.
DUST May 3, 1 p.m., PFA; May 5, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki