A documentary focusing on the “art” or the “practice” of dowsing might strike some as an esoteric and even boring exercise, but filmmaker George Kachadorian has a unique aspect that imbues this film with an attractive quality. His mother is a practitioner of this still mysterious craft while married to his father, a no-nonsense realist who works as a civil engineer. Their curious union brings up a natural pathos and their opposing standpoints serve as the metaphor for rest of the movie.
Kachadorian does not focus solely on his mother but embarks on a cross country exploration of the old craft, speaking with long-working dowsers and those who now bring a new philosophy to the technique, as well a variety of scientific experts and some religious leaders. One surprising discovery was the emergence of a new-age mentality to the trade with people who employ dowsing for things other than finding underground wells, using the craft much like a daily horoscope for personal decisions. A school girl explains how she plies the technique to help her during tests, and one woman seemed a little too strident in explaining how it can be used to repair a broken lawnmower.
Most of the older dowsers had a matter-of-fact sensibility to the skill without much introspection, something that was repeatedly displayed. Despite their insistence that this was a true ability very few of the dowsers had a concrete explanation for why it works for them, and just as many displayed no real curiosity. There were plenty of scienticians however who were willing to cast a look.
Scholars and professional debunkers are interviewed and as expected they mostly suggest there is a lack of concrete evidence in support of the success of dowsing. James Randi—a noted cynic of the mystical—shows a tape of a an experiment he conducted with water witches in Europe who were asked to find a cistern he had placed underground in an open field, and their success was proven to be less than random. He also grounds the discussion, after numerous questions on “How” or “Why” dowsing works, by declaring that you first need to ask “does it work at all?”
What is most curious is how the pragmatists end up appearing as angry or ranting in their frustrations, while the practitioners continue to ply away in a state of bemused contentment. When confronted with questions regarding accuracy or proof, most would shrug and simply state that they know it works. Most appear to be like your friend who ardently reads their astrology forecast; they may agree when you explain to them the generalized nature of the predictions or that they tend to categorize some six billion people into behaving in just twelve manners, but they will still check that horoscope tomorrow.
The contrast is enough to possibly sway you into thinking there may be something behind this technique. You don’t get the same dismissive feeling with these older workers like you do watching “The Pet Psychic”. One dowser details his story of finding a missing body in the middle of a lake, sounding as surprised as anyone and not at all acting with smug satisfaction like those late-night seers who can bandage your love life with the use of their tarot cards and your credit card.
The end result is whichever side of the debate you sit it is doubtful the film will provoke you to hop the fence–there is enough evidence pro and con to cancel each other out. And following the titular Mom was equally inconclusive. We watch her put to the test as she chooses a well location for a customer and declares how deep they will have to bore before they will strike water. The well diggers felt they would need a greater depth based on the wells previously dug in that area and they struck water exactly between their estimates, neither proving nor disproving the veracity.
I have been dubious as to how sticks, L-bars, pendulums, Y-wires, and even two coat hangers can become instruments used to locate water or treasure. At times I may have sensed a softening of my convictions based on some of the evidence on screen but those were soon tempered anew when I witnessed dowsers not only divine water locations but then go on to ask direct questions of their divining rods and watching for telltale movements that would provide an answer.
But there is one detail that holds true: If this were truly a crackpot scheme it would have died centuries ago. One academic makes a very valid argument. “At one level there’s no doubt that dowsing works because the marketplace has made that judgment and they use dowsers.” There is no greater truth than when you vote with your dollars.
I still doubt however that I’ll be wiggling a rod over my lawnmower to find out if I need to get a new fuel filter. That’s what Ouija boards are for.