A visceral documentary that will leave you breathless, Brimstone and Glory captures the people of Tultepec battling burns, storms and vertigo as they celebrate the National Pyrotechnic Festival
Opening the Bertha DocHouse’s DocFest, Brimstone and Glory should probably come with a warning: do not watch if you are sensitive to gory injuries, susceptible to pyromania or have vertigo. If you aren’t partial to the sight of someone’s nose being cracked back into place, or a man being blinded after being struck by a firework, look away. It comes with the territory in a town where the chief economy is the pyrotechnics industry.
This is Tultepec, south eastern Mexico, where every year the National Pyrotechnic Festival takes place in aid of San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks makers. Almost every building is marked with the words ‘peligro’ (danger), with good reason. In December 2016, a year after director Viktor Jakovleski filmed the festival, 39 people were killed in an explosion at the San Pablito Market.
Is there method in the madness? “A handful of this, a handful of that,” is as precise as the measurements get, filmed in breathtaking slow-motion that captures the process, un-technical as it may be, of making gunpowder. It takes a village, and Jakovleski’s eye takes a skin deep look at everyone from children to women and the elderly. It would have been nice to learn a little more about scared, young Santi, but his curiosity as he clambers around inside one of the giant toritos (giant, papier-mâché and wire bulls decked out with fireworks), is endearing to watch.
It’s no wonder he’s scared. Go-pro cameras clamber the heights of the stomach-churning, gently swaying ‘castillos’ as workers attach the fireworks to the towers. Smoke in hand, the man in charge of lighting the fireworks trundles between them, setting fire to them with the burning end of his cigarette.
“You gotta have balls,” joke the pyrotechnicians in one of the few heartwarming comedic moments of the film, and they’re not wrong. When the Día de Los Toros (day of the bulls) finally comes, it’s nothing less than a spectacle.
Aerial photography captures the scope of the event as the enormous model bulls rage through the main square, spraying glittering fireballs onto the crowd who dance under the light of the flames, no regard for their safety; a scar marks the coming of the saint. When fires are started, water is thrown on the flames before their quellers race back for more; despite a heavy police presence, there is no order amongst the chaos.
That Jakovleski managed to capture the images he has in such a mesmerising war zone is a wonder and a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. Amongst the carnage, he conveys the sheer sense of happiness and community the effervescent display brings to the Mexican people, and equalises the differences in our very different lives to create a shared sense of human experience.
He is helped immeasurably in this by the editorial eye of Affonso Gonçalves (Carol, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the use of sound, continually booming behind the action. Scored by Dan Romer (Beasts of No Nation) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the film has a goosebump-inducing, poetic rhythmicality to it. The drums beat with cathartic release as the toros take to the streets, and as the castillos burn in flames, the score lulls you into a wholly entrancing state of hypnosis.
Brimstone and glory is more like a music video than it is a documentary. With its captivating imagery and emotionally stirring score, it removes you from the cinema and draws you into one extraordinary day in a place that seems like worlds away. It’s only when we glimpse their return to reality as Santi and his family celebrate his first communion in Church the very next day that you remember that you haven’t left this world at all.
One thing’s for sure, Guy Fawkes night looks tame in comparison.