A documentary that looks at light in Holland may sound like the sequel to Watching Paint Dry, but this is a surprisingly satisfying viewing experience.
Dutch filmmakers Pieter-Rim de Kroon and Maarten de Kroon take as their starting point a comment by German artist Joseph Beuys that with the land reclamation of the inland sea, the Zudyder Zee, in the mid-1950s, the Dutch were destroying the only sense that they possessed - their sight. At first this might sound like the eccentric ranting of an art nut, but as the film searches in earnest for the particular qualities that characterise Holland's light now and in the 17th century when the Dutch Masters were painting, the comment becomes more resonant.
There's an element of the art appreciation lesson here as experts offer explanations as to what really made the Dutch Masters "masters", from the absurd myth of old that the nation's consumption of large amounts of fish and vegetables meant they had soft brains that predisposed them to imitate reality, to the more persuasive argument that artists, rather than re-inventing form from the chaos of nature, merely turned to each other's works to find solutions.
The artists and art historians are good company as they illustrate how Dutch painters developed techniques like layering dark and light subjects on their canvasses to convey rural scenes with almost "photographic" accuracy, but the questions that wont go away are how do you measure light and what's more how can you possibly tell whether light was different several centuries ago?
The filmmakers admit we can't really prove that the light has changed "but we can look". And so we do: the camera is set up in a rural setting and pans silently across the flat horizon. There is no annoying Robin Williams type character telling us to look deeply into the picture a la The Lost Poets' Society, no ethereal soundtrack, just the incidental sounds of the countryside, like a distant church bell tolling, or someone clearing their throat in the audience, as the landscape is allowed to tell its own story.
This technique might sound boring, but it's actually quite audacious and effective, almost like watching a Dutch Master come to life. The light in Holland appears highly varied on account of the changeable weather (like Scotland, it's not unusual to get four seasons of weather in a day) and the flat, expansive land where you can, as one artist puts it, "almost see the curvature of the globe" offers vast, dramatic skyscapes.
"Just looking" works most effectively when the filmmakers return at intervals over the period of a whole year to the same scene on a dyke, capturing the changing light, seasons and scenery. There is so much that is different that it doesn't even look like the same place.
Naturally, with such subject matter you become much more conscious of the quality of the cinematography, its grain, the vibrancy and range of light and colour, and with director of photography Paul van den Bos you feel in safe hands. It's filmed on 35mm which helps - when the film makes a foray into Provence and the paintings of van Gogh, the screen bursts with strong, Southern colour. Time-lapse sequences are also used effectively to show change.
Considering the filmmakers are trying to touch the untouchable they pursue their theme with the tenacity of a Scottish terrier, attacking it from every angle: there's a laboratory experiment that mimics the interplay of light, water and cloud; truck drivers talk about how light differs from the countryside they know at home, and we see and hear how contemporary Dutch artists are fitting into the tradition as capturers of Holland's silvery grey light.
The film seems to lean in favour of Beuys's view that the quality of Dutch light has changed, but the question is far from conclusively answered. That's perhaps inevitable, and not really a disappointment, because it is the questions, explorations and experiments with light along the way that are the real reward here. It should make you see things differently.