In Bill Rose’s latest documentary, “This Dust of Words,” Stanford Professor John Felstiner shares with us his memories of former honors student Elizabeth Wiltsee and traces her life all the way up to her tragic and curious death. A girl genius with everything going for her post Stanford graduation, Elizabeth decided to eschew the life of success for which she had been on track to instead live on the outskirts of society as a globetrotting writer, however she finds little success in the publishing world. She withdraws further from society and is found ten years later homeless and sleeping in the doorway of a church in Watsonville, California, wracked by mental illness. The small farming community took her in and she would spend most of her time in their library, reading everything she could and translating 8th century Chinese poetry. Then one day she announced that she was going home and headed out on foot. Her remains were found seven months later near the San Luis Reservoir.
Once again, as with his film The Loss of Nameless Things, Bill Rose focuses on a person perhaps too brilliant for their own good and the tragedy that befell them. And as with his previous film, Rose spends more time celebrating the subject’s vibrant existence rather than revealing morbid details of their tragic twist of fate. Gorgeously shot and chock full of archival footage as to help truly draw the viewer into the life of Elizabeth Wiltsee, it’s clear that Rose has the utmost respect for his subject and the unique life that she did lead. He has created this film as a tribute to this life lived instead of some run-of-the-mill forensic files mystery.
Among her many achievements, I think Elizabeth Wiltsee would be especially proud of attracting the attention of filmmaker Bill Rose and his film that gives her the notoriety that she so richly deserves.