It was only a matter of time before documentarians started borrowing the "how one small item affects everything" model from the non-fiction bestseller list. Hartmut Bitomsky's Dust makes a pensive study of the title particulate, considering the way we wage a never-ending battle with the tiny specks that gather around us. Bitomsky interviews art-restorers who clean the dust off antique sculptures, dealing with the sick feeling that their efforts are altering the art ever so slightly. He talks to a Dust Bowl historian, and a housewife who's fanatical about cleaning. And he even lets the dust-lovers have their say, hearing out one woman who collects dust bunnies, because she's fascinated by the idea that dust creates its own mini-sculptures out of what we shed. ("The dust in our home is like an archive," she says with a twinkle.)
Though Dust relies on the standard documentary mix of talking heads and narration, Bitomsky also breaks up the chatter with artful montages and eye-popping extreme close-ups, capturing the accidental beauty of waste and decay. At times, Dust is a little like one of those basic-cable shows that reveal how things are made, as Bitomsky hangs out in laboratories and factories, watching paint-mixing or scientists studying plants. At other times, Dust is more probative, as Bitomsky considers the dangers of radioactivity, or what happened to the New Yorkers who inhaled the dust of the wreckage on 9/11. And while Dust is too shapeless, and often a little dry—no pun intended—it's frequently striking. When Bitomsky appreciates the complexity of dust clumps, or watches what happens when a piece of celluloid film goes uncleaned, he makes his fascination with invisible clouds of matter clear and compelling. At the least, he makes documentary fans appreciate being in the hands of a filmmaker with a good eye and a unique point of view, rather than being stuck with another cheerless agit-prop doc.