Review: "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind" (Gianvito, USA)

John Gianvito's documentary is an example of an ideal cinema of awareness, pedagogy, history, and activism.
Daniel Kasman

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

John Gianvito proves once again that in the cinema simplicity begets superlative richness. His 2007 documentary, the non-monumental Profit Motives and the Whispering Wind, chronologically tracks a history of struggles for liberty and bloody repressions in North America—and later, the United States—through the simple digital recording of monuments: grave stones, historical signs, unmarked sites, and statues. The scope reaches from the 17th century fights between Native Americans and colonists through American slavery, late 19th and early 20th century labor union struggles, and more ambiguous fights against social, state, and capitalist powers in the late 20th century. Gianvito's masterpiece unites a disparate and largely forgotten series of figures and events not necessarily to resurrect awareness of them so much as to use cinema to create a horrifying, as well as proud, thread of history of loud voices through silent markers.

Indeed, the silence of these many unknown events, persons, and histories is continually alluded to, and the stunning sound design of the film—live recordings for nearly each shot—explain part of the title of the film: the dominant aural motif is wind, rustling gently or blowing heartily through the trees and bushes, and if the monuments to the past can no longer speak, at least, it seems, the land is aware of history, and reference it continually and for ever through the ghostly activity.

Cutting easily, logically from medium and long shots of the markers and to closer views so that we may read the text—or what is left of it, as the first montage of a cemetery makes clear, there is a great deal of markers left illegible, just as there must be a great deal of people and events left unmark—Gianvito's film is a history lesson, a record, and a collage, perhaps the best example of an ideal cinema of awareness, pedagogy, history, and activism. Interspersed between the shots of markers are what may or may not be nearby ambient shots of the landscape, occasionally with urban, and later, corporate landmarks visible. More shocking are a small series of animated vignettes cut between the real footage, of what looks like, first, gold miners, and later, strikers or protestors—ghosts of history that can only be included through the artificial creation of someone's pen.

But the film is not only the physical and natural evidence of a nation's organized pride and extensive shame, but stunningly includes a final montage of contemporary activism, unanchored by references to what is being protested, where, when, or why—in diametric contrast to the super-specific monuments that make up most of the film—and we are left with the sensation of potential history making this very day through activism, in contrast to the settled, almost serene weight of bygone events.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


ReviewsJohn Gianvito

Related Films

Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.