In the documentary film making world Werner Herzog is something of a legend and since his first feature in 1968 he has made a variety of fascinating documentaries spanning a wide range of topics. During that time he has developed a style which is fairly unique and in The White Diamond he uses plenty of this to tell the weird and wonderful story of Dr Graham Dorrington – (at the time) a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London with a penchant for flying airships.
Dr Dorrington is a rather whimsical fellow fascinated by airships and, perhaps as a reason to build one, has an interest in studying the tree tops of the rain forest. After first meeting him in his lab where he explains how an airship works we are introduced to a man who is slightly awkward but generally normal aside from his proclivity to fire off on wild tangents and aloof asides to accompany his otherwise intelligent discourse.
Whilst not quite a mad cap scientist, Dr Dorrington nevertheless is developing a white airship which he hopes to float over the Guyanan canopy in order to observe and conduct experiments. We are given access to his indoor test flights and then transported to a clearing deep in South America where base camp is to be set up ahead of the planned flights.
We learn quite early of a previously attempted expedition which ended in tragedy but are left hanging as to why – a classic Herzog narrative trait which is actually quite annoying. Rather than leave you wanting more it just leaves you frustrated that you don’t know the story and when he repeats it later with a different topic (although mercifully this is resolved minutes later with an explanation) you begin to wonder why the arc is designed like this.
Nevertheless the film ploughs on through open air test flights and various small mishaps taking in side characters from the local villages and the other crew members who have gone along for the ride. Ultimately what starts as an apparently scientific experiment ends up being one man’s desire to fly an airship in an unusual place. To say we are watching an ego trip would be unfair because Dr Dorrington is not an arrogant personality but the motives for his trip certainly do not appear to be entirely of a scientific nature which is again somewhat frustrating for the viewer let alone the support staff who probably wonder why they have followed him into the jungle to brave the elements for seemingly very little. Indeed, nothing is ever mentioned about what data he may have collected and ultimately the film peters out with little conclusion.
What probably seemed like a good idea on paper ends up a bit of a mess in the end as the story tangents into the life of a local man named Marc Anthony and spends so much time dwelling on the past or on the local mythology of the area that the main thrust of the story is lost along the way. Herzog does the best he can with what he has but this needs a brutal edit and to be reduced to a 45 minute TV documentary rather than a feature length piece.
Higher quality Herzog can be found elsewhere, particularly in his next documentary Grizzly Man which is a much better starting point for the uninitiated.