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Semiotics lessons don’t get much more sparkling and entertaining than Jason Kohn’s new documentary Nothing Lasts Forever.
Ostensibly about the diamond industry and the ongoing crisis related to synthetic diamonds, Nothing Lasts Forever is really about the very ephemeral nature of the wildly expensive gemstone — not so much “What is a diamond?” as “What do diamonds represent and how do you put a price tag on concepts like ‘love’ and ‘eternity’? And who gets to apply that price tag?”
Nothing Lasts Forever
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Director: Jason Kohn1 hour 27 minutes
Diamonds are rocks — not even hugely rare rocks — that have been imbued with preternatural power by some cutting, some polishing, a whole lot of price-fixing and one of the most successful marketing campaigns for any product in the history of humanity. If technology has allowed us to create diamonds that are, on every structural level, identical to the ones yanked from the ground, what elusive quality of “diamondness” remains?
Or, as jewelry designer and author Aja Raden puts it, “The diamond was never real either. The diamond was always a lie. So the synthetic diamond is just a lie about a lie.”
Raden, who has possibly the highest gems-to-comments ratio I’ve ever seen from a documentary talking head, is one of the main reasons Nothing Lasts Forever is such a pleasure to watch. The documentary, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival and already earmarked for a Showtime launch, is a neat and efficient globe-trotting journey, full of insightful trivia and fun details, driven by impeccably selected main characters, who either go through interesting personal arcs in just 87 minutes or, like Raden, unleash a nonstop torrent of cleverness.
As Raden observes, it’s immediately telling how many of the biggest representatives of the industry actually made themselves available to Kohn. Five or 10 years ago, Big Diamond was so comfortable in its insulated position that somebody like Martin Rapaport, head of the industry standardizing and pricing organ the Rapaport Group, or longtime De Beers executive Stephen Lussier wouldn’t have felt any need to sit down for an on-the-record chat. The industry helped construct an artificial version of romantic love in which diamonds were somehow an integral piece, and that perception was cemented across movies and television and literature as something unassailable.
Synthetic diamonds, however, assail everything we’ve accepted about diamonds, from their scarcity to their necessity as a central cog in a manufactured notion of love. People like Rapaport and Lussier are on the defensive. With Kohn as a curious and cautious interrogator, these figures slide quickly into their respective forms of self-defense, whether it’s Rapaport being offended by synthetic diamonds on behalf of generations of girls who, he argues, deserve the love embodied by a real diamond or Lussier trumpeting the importance of companies like De Beers in civilizing and enriching Africa. One is a character from Uncut Gems, the other straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel.
Rapaport takes Kohn to New York City’s Diamond District, Lussier to Botswana, both only the start of the documentary’s journey and its key characters. On Roosevelt Island we meet Dusan Simic, a gemologist committed to helping protect the line between real and synthetic, at least until he begins to doubt whether the line is worth protecting. In China and several Indian locations, we meet people tied to the manufacture and refinement of both real and synthetic diamonds. In Salt Lake City, we meet John Janik, who has a PhD in crystal-making and has a very specific reason for wanting to take down De Beers and the diamond cartels. And then whenever Kohn needs a truth bomb, he can always cut to Raden.
Kohn’s interviews are mostly shot in straightforward fashion, but when the documentary is on the road, he and cinematographer Heloisa Passos mirror the paranoia-inducing framing of a ’70s conspiracy thriller, with composer Logan Nelson’s score mining that genre and sometimes the spritely kick of a heist film. Simic, who has the most interesting individual journey is the documentary, gives Nothing Lasts Forever an unlikely underdog hero, but Kohn is very much aware that he’s dealing with the rich and powerful. Nobody watching at home will feel bad if they’re brought down, regardless of who does it or why.
As entertaining and engaging as Nothing Lasts Forever is, it remains slightly limited by Kohn’s dogged concentration on the frivolous. To do a documentary on ethics in the diamond trade without “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds” even being a footnote is a little strange to me. I get that it isn’t Kohn’s chosen focus, but the industry basically eliminated the problem of conflict diamonds through semantics more than action. To explore that process further would be to dig into the actual and tangible impact of the diamond trade on Africa, something Kohn wants to do only in wisps — a raised eyebrow here, an ironic montage as a DeBeers executive waxes poetic there. This is a topic that’s more easily engaged when the crimes being investigated are either victimless or the economic victims remain faceless.
Nothing Lasts Forever may not cause you to feel bad about whatever diamonds you happen to own, and it may not provoke an immediate trip to your nearest pawn shop. That sort of concrete effect would be hard to come by. It will, however, absolutely change the way you think about the very idea of diamonds, which is pretty impressive on its own.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Director: Jason Kohn
Producers: Amanda Branson Gill, Jared Goldman
Executive producer: Vinne Malhotra
Editors: Paul Marchand & Jack Price
Composer: Logan Nelson
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