For ten days every year, the small town of Tultepec, Mexico plays host to the national Pyrotechnic Festival. More than a visual feast, the festival is a tribute to San Juan de Dios, a saint that once ran into a burning hospital and saved people without suffering a single burn himself.
The townspeople hope he will bestow the same fortune upon them, and as Viktor Jakovleski’s (Beasts of the Southern Wild) documentary Brimstone & Glory reveals, they certainly need it. Over 75% of Tultepec’s residents work in pyrotechnics, and the danger involved is substantial.
“Yes, I’m afraid of dying”, one subject confesses.
“In this line of work, it’s day to day.”
Despite the size of the industry, nobody in Tultepec has more than a cursory understanding of chemistry. Children not yet in their teens haphazardly build explosives, fear evident in their face. Men climb towers to extinguish fireworks ignited by lightning strikes, the storm still raging around them. EMTs prep for the Burning of the Bulls as their lead officer reminds them to put locals in ambulances only if they have burns to more than 30% of their body.
All this risk, undertaken with the clear understanding that injury and death are all but a certainty. Why do they do it?
Out of respect for the work. Despite everything that comes with it, most of those involved in pyrotechnics love the work. And that’s ultimately what the festival is all about.
Jakovleski recognises this. There’s little dialogue beyond that spoken casually between on-screen subjects; instead, he lets the camera tell what little story Brimstone & Glory offers. The cinematography is sublime, implementing a cavalcade of techniques to create a truly experiential film. Unsurprisingly, it’s best experienced in cinemas, both due to the visuals and sound design.
There’s a beauty to it, and a violence. It’s hard not to feel anxious when you see a wayward firework burning up someone’s backyard, or dozens of bottle rockets ignite in a crowd. In the EMT trailer, a man walks in with his eye surrounded in blood. More than likely, he has been permanently blinded.
But this is life in Tultepec, and with three years worth of footage at hand, Jakovleski has captured it magnificently. At 67 minutes, Brimstone & Glory doesn’t wear out its novelty, nor imbue unnecessary complexity to pad out its duration. In the end, it is an exciting insight into a rich and joyful community that loves what it does best.
Brimstone & Glory screens exclusively at ACMI, January 5 – 28.
To book your tickets, click here.