'Brimstone & Glory' producer and filmmaker Behn Zeitlin on capturing chaos and the romance of danger.
What if a community was unconcerned with safety? Imagine a collective, fueled by a devotion to an art form, willing to endanger themselves year after year for their art. Since 1989, a group of artisans in Tultepec, Mexico have created a festival dedicated to the spectacle of fireworks. Called The National Pyrotechnic Festival, the gathering lasts for ten days, with innovative artisans celebrating San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of firework makers.
Looking at still images, it was clear to director Viktor Jakovleski that the festivities were an inherently cinematic event worth capturing. Producer and filmmaker Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) felt the same, with questions he needed to ask: "Why do people do this? Why do they take the risks they do to create it? What inspires them and what's the beauty behind it?"
Over 67 glorious minutes, Brimstone & Glory answers these questions and begets new ones about creativity, risk, and exploration. The people of Tultepec—more than three quarters of which work in pyrotechnics—have a tendency to inadvertently inspire. They may not have known it, but they do. Their spirits are full and open, undeterred by fear. When I spoke to Zeitlin by phone, he was excited about the future while still nostalgic for Tultepec. We discussed the conflagrant madness down in Mexico, art outstripping the artist, and why only one city could host such a spectacular bit of reverie.
VICE: What was your entry point into this world?
Benh Zeitlin: When Victor went down for the first year, he came back with images like a guy climbing a four-story wooden beam and lighting fireworks with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. They were unlike anything I'd ever seen, both because I had no idea a tradition like this existed and because it was so frenetic and exciting that I really wanted to understand.
Did you look at Victor's initial footage and ask, "How the hell is this safe?"
It's definitely not safe. One of the things that's really interesting is the actual production of the fireworks. I was down there for shooting, and those were the times I felt the least safe—not necessarily in the spectacular shots in the square, when there's rockets flying by your head and fire from all sides. That's a terrifying adrenaline rush, but the actual production of the bombs themselves is insanely dangerous.
The festival isn't safe, and that's a huge part of what it's about. To create fireworks—which is these peoples's livelihood, passion, and art—requires living extremely close to death, danger, and disfigurement at all times. A lot of the catharsis of the tradition is about doing this in a celebratory way, on this day, in tribute to the saints that will protect you for the rest of the year while you continue to work with what are essentially homemade bombs. The danger and the injury during the event is different from something that's unsafe in that you're intentionally putting yourself in harm's way as a ritualistic tribute to the town's customs.
Were there similarities between the way this festival was created and directing a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild?
Well, our shoots have never even come close to approximating what goes on in Brimstone & Glory. At the end of the day, we're extremely safe and cautious when making narrative films. I'm really drawn to subject matter that you can't necessarily control—that's inherently risky, difficult, and unpredictable. I'm really inspired by art and traditions where the creation is bigger and more powerful than the creator. That's inspiring, and it leads you to finally understand things that you never would have looked for if you had been completely in control.
I like the idea of the creation being "bigger than the creator."
It goes against thinking that human beings are the be-all, end-all—definitely more towards faith than commerce. When you make a project, isn't it often like raising a kid? At some point they're going to run wild, and they're not going to do what you thought they were going to do. But hopefully, you've given birth to something that's bigger and better than yourself. That's a really important part of creativity—to be humble and try to make something that transcends, that's smarter and wiser than you are. You can't do that if it just comes from your imagination—then you're revealing yourself but you're not necessarily surprising yourself, and that surprise is something that makes it fun and something that changes you, and grows each time you go through creating something.
Do you think this festival could ever happen in America?
No. When I first moved to New Orleans, there's this thing called the Christmas Tree Fire where the whole city would bring their trees into the middle of this park, fill it with fireworks, light it up, and just run. That lasted for two years, and then the fire department started sponsoring it, and no one goes anymore. If there's any city that gets chaos and the value of things being out of control, it's New Orleans.
You go to these place, come back to America, an just feel like we live in this intensely controlled fascist state where there isn't real freedom, abandon, or this feeling that anything can happen. You come up against this making films all the time in a world of insurance companies. We've cleaned these traditions out of our culture. Obviously, they're not safe, but they're transcendent. Tultepec is distinctly different from everywhere around it because of this tradition and this incredibly unique art form that's so wild it changes people and makes the town an extremely vibrant and inspiring place. I think it's more complicated than the insurance companies would see it as. It's hard not to think about some of the things that are lost when everything has to be safe.