Peter Mettler’s ‘Petropolis’ And ‘Picture Of Light’

Canada with its wild and spectacular landscapes, is a peaceful land of multiculturalism. Isn’t that the image we usually have of this country?  “Gimme Some Truth”, the 6th documentary festival taking place last month in Winnipeg  – at the very heart of the continent- gave us these same images of majestic nature and cultures’ diversity, yet from slightly different perspectives. Opening the festival, Peter Mettler’s movies Petropolis and Picture of Light showed us some of its true features.

Starting with an eerie flight over huge and dark pine trees – identified by a white title card as the Canadian boreal forest- the viewer follows a white and thick mist spreading over the land, eventually changing into smoke.

Shown as an introduction to “Picture of Light”, “Petropolis: aerial perspectives on tar sand oils”  is, as its full name posits, an aerial 15mm short-film made of travelling shots and paths over the biggest industrialized area in Canada: its oil industry. Indeed, when people mention Canada, we naturally think of wild natural landscapes, untouched by man. We often forget – including Canadians themselves – that the country is one of the main sources for oil. For few years though, this topic starts to be brought more and more often to the table, Harper’s conservative government facing Idle No More [a protest movement originating in First Nations issues such as the access to water and land’s property] and other environmental activists, and Peter Mettler’s movie.

His view of the tar sand industry isn’t actually such a new perspective, contrasting technology versus nature, dehumanizing space. On the same topic, Oil Sand Karaoke, a documentary released in 2013 (4 years after Petropolis) shows us a much more multi-faceted perspective, searching for human motivations and comprehension behind the environmental issue.  However, if Peter Mettler clearly takes position on the environmental side – the film has been made for Greenpeace – his film isn’t merely politically oriented. Earth’s view from above is something that can be strikingly visual if you remember Yann-Arthus Bertrand Earth’s pictures, and Peter Mettler uses this obligation (the media are not allowed to enter the site) as a powerful visual prop.

From above, Earth’s colors and features become abstract forms as if we were looking at paintings. It is a surprise for the eye following the camera’s slow moves in long creeps in or out, not always able to figure the scale out. Put together with title cards giving facts and numbers, this uncanny visualscape questions viewers drowned into the beauty of forms, mind enveloped in an eerie soundtrack. Made by the director itself, the audio – for three quarters of the film devoid of human voice – enwraps the viewer emphasizing uncanniness through its ambient-dark lasting sounds, close to Saåad’s drone music.


A still from Petropolis

This visual symphony is carried on in Picture of Light, the opening’s featured movie. Recording the quest for the Northern Lights in Churchill (Manitoba), this essay retells the filmmakers’ attempt to film the lights. In the same vein as Petropolis, the film seems to be an excuse for questioning both artistic and human life through reflections such as nature and technology relationships. This time human presence is shown, but scarcely, lonely beings facing an unknown culture – Northern inhabitants – that is only perceived through the landscape. Both meditative and melancholic trips, the latter emphasizes the mystical atmosphere triggered by time’s slowing down through sounds and long shots, as well as superimpositions, reflections and the use of snow drift in a very Impressionist way.

Not only bringing light on Canada’s forgotten realities – its environmental and cultural issues – as the documentary festival’s aim was, Peter Mettler’s aesthetic gives at once a sensual and philosophical representation of the space he films, which is what deeply questions its viewers.

Untitled-74 J copy


A still from Picture of Light

Link to Petropolis movie:

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Canada, Gimme Some Truth, Peter Mettler, Petroplis, Picture of Light
Agnès André
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Agnès André
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Peter Mettler’s ‘Petropolis’ And ‘Picture Of Light’

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