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Short Films in Focus: The Diamond

“Everything that’s important is unexplainable, did you ever notice that?” says one of the miners at the volcano site, where people from all over the country gather to mine for diamonds. It’s hard not to notice the unexplainable in the first few minutes of Caitlyn Greene’s soulful documentary “The Diamond.” What brings these people to this area where there once sat a volcano? What are they hoping to find within the dirt and mud besides a rare and almost microscopic diamond? If they find one, will they continue to mine for more?

Greene’s documentary does not hold these people toward any kind of judgment. Far from it. These people are all of us, in a way. Any one of us can find ourselves in this spot, enjoying the lovely weather and getting lost in the search. Anyone who has a hobby that occupies hours of their time away from people will be able to see themselves in this, but even that is not the real story. The stories the people here tell are immensely personal and delve deep into issues of marriage, trauma and sibling rivalry. The trajectory that led them to this spot to mine for diamonds almost feels like an afterthought. In fact, nobody ever talks about what they would do with a diamond if they ever found one. As they enter the site, an announcer can be heard saying “whyever [sic] you are where and whatever may come of your quest, we wish you joy in your journey.”

There are many sorts who show up. The older couple who are opposites; the pair of sisters who are now back in each other’s lives; a soldier coping with PTSD; parents coping with grief; the original diamond miners who never stopped their quest. One of them remarks about how miners die and come back as birds to laugh at the other miners who continue their search. And yet, the flipside of that spiritual notion is that once a diamond is found, it will be the first time a human hand has touched it. “It goes from God’s hands to yours,” one miner says. 

Greene finds the right tone for the film that matches the tranquility of a day in the life of a diamond miner. This is not a flashy or overly stylistic film. It’s a quiet and meditative portrait of a group of people who have different reasons for being here, but who have the same common purpose. “The Diamond” reminded me of Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven,” in that the individuals’ life stories become the center of the film and the subject matter exists in the periphery. Greene does not go to great lengths to explain “the unexplainable,” but allows the viewer to put the puzzles of these life stories together for ourselves. 

Q&A with director Caitlyn Greene

How did you find out about this? What drew you to this idea?

I came across an article online about the field and learned it’s the only public diamond mine in the world. I love singular places that bring together people from all walks of life, and I was immediately hooked on the metaphor of this particular place. The search, the hope, the diamonds themselves. I was curious who I’d find there, what compelled them to search, and what they might truly be looking for in life.

How much time did you spend in that location?

We spent six days in the diamond field. Most interviews were around two hours.

Tell me about that shot near the end of the close-up of the diamond. How did you shoot that?

The park office has a microscope they use to examine diamonds found in the field. We filmed that shot through the microscope. The aqua part that reveals and then covers the diamond is the interior of the microscope tube as we pan across the eye piece.

The people here dive deep into very personal stories. How did they end up opening up to you? Were you a stranger to them at first?

Yes, we were total strangers at first -- I essentially just walked up to people in the field and started a conversation. It took time to get to the personal stories you see in the film; we sat with people for quite a while. Certainly not everyone we met was so open, but I’m continually surprised and humbled by how generous many people are with their stories. Generally, I suspect almost everyone has something on their heart or mind they’d like to share and are sort of waiting, even if subconsciously, for someone to ask or simply offer to truly listen.

Did you do any digging yourself?

On our last day there, Nick (the wonderful DP) and I decided to try a little digging before we headed to the airport. I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to play in dirt. We don’t do that enough after childhood! Nick especially was hooked. We got so into it, we were late leaving for our flight and just barely escaped a speeding ticket trying to make it to the airport on time.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a character-driven, vérité documentary feature in Louisiana about the Mississippi River and the control of nature.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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