REVIEW: The Weather War

Tuesday, 9 September, 2014

Could you imagine being able to control the weather? Well, you probably already can.

Many of us might no longer believe in gods whose whims, moods or agendas create storms, hurricanes or sunshine, but we certainly haven’t fallen out of love with the idea. The Weather War, the latest film from Swedish artist duo Bigert & Bergström, might present itself as a science documentary, and it will definitely satiate the appetites of any amateur meteorologists in the audience. But the film never forgets that storms predate science. It shows us many new discoveries about how and why tornadoes occur, but we are in no way expected to abandon our fear of them altogether. It freely admits to having no easy explanations or magic solutions to offer us.

True, The Weather War is the type of dramatic title we’ve become used to seeing, and its main pitch is the kind of fanciful borderline science-fiction fodder we’re used to hearing. We spend much of our time following Bigert & Bergström as they join the project of The Tornado Stopper, an invention that can repel the positive charge of a tornado using 100,000 negative volts. Canadian meteorologist and storm chaser Mark Robinson is attempting to place this machine in the path of a twister. If he succeeds, the tornado’s path should be diverted away from the ground and, crucially, away from anywhere it could do any damage. As every audience will quickly notice, this is an incredibly ambitious undertaking. If this was a work of fiction instead of a documentary, we would immediately expect to see Robinson punished for his hubris and made to see that Vladimir Pudov’s theory should be left in academic journals and never be used to change one’s destiny. One who tries to change the course of a natural disaster is encroaching on godly territory, and boy do Bigert & Bergström know it.

After each scientific interview that borders on talk of divine magic we’re given some intriguing historical fact. Some delve into ancient mythology, others delve into battle-deciding storms that appeared to acts of god, but most are about human attempts to alter weather patterns. My interest was particularly piqued by the story of how the American government interfered with a rain cloud in order to flood the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Most significantly, when the United Nations discovered this, they made an official ruling against changing the weather as a military strategy. Armies are free to manipulate fire, metal, gravity and gas in order to defeat the enemy, but apparently the weather is very strictly the territory of the divine.

Or of blind luck. This is certainly the impression we are left with. One of the very last interviews is with a young man whose hometown has just been ravaged by a tornado. As upsetting as it might be to see that the locations of your every major milestone replaced by an empty landscape, it simply has to be shrugged off. After waiting ages in the basement for the dreaded thing to pass, you resurface to find out who’s left and who’s gone. If we do become able to stop a tornado from landing, an even scarier problem still remains: where would we send it? Where would be a safe place to land a tornado, and how can we be sure that’s where it will go? Is it better to be killed by blind chance than by human negligence?

That’s certainly the opinion held by many victims of natural (and not quite so natural) disasters. The team also takes us to those faraway lands that are feeling most of the effects of our carbon emissions. Something’s gotta give, but as long as it gives out well away from where we are it’s hard to feel motivated to change. Thankfully Bigert & Bergström aren’t the ones telling us this—that would be hypocritical–they let the people affected speak for themselves in thoughtfully subtitled Pidgin English that gives us no excuse not to listen to them.

In fact, this documentary is incredibly light on intrusive voiceover from the filmmakers. The interviewees are the ones we’ve come to listen to, and they really know their stuff. The boys don’t try to join the dots for us with their own words. Their contribution to the mix is visual, not verbal, as it should be. The team’s intriguing installation art frames and embellishes the interviews. They give everyone a break from listening and a few moments to digest and ponder over what they’ve just heard as well as what they’re seeing.

What can be taken from these artworks will vary from person to person. I found a few of the more representative ones very creative, and the more abstract ones were fun to try to interpret. Not all of them will resonate with every member of the audience, but an artist can only try.

What I’m sure everyone watching will be able to appreciate is the film’s adept anticipation of every misgiving a person might have about the whole affair. Any questions of hubris and the problems with playing god are very quickly addressed. The scientists are just as sceptical as we all are about inventions such as The Tornado Stopper, with one scientist saying that anyone who thinks we can control and create the weather is living in a fairy-tale land. They conclude that we can only slightly alter what’s already present. Bigert & Bergström truly seem to have thought of everything, and have conveniently compiled everything into a short 58-minute running time. There’s no excuse not to see this one.

The Weather War is screening at the Environmental Film Festival Melbourne on Tuesday 9 September. For the full EFFM program, head to