Elsewhere – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2000)

I have one specific sequence in my head, and what it shows and what is said doesn’t get any weaker with time. An elderly tribes man from Indonesia, sitting in his tree house, tells us that it wouldn’t be good to kill bad people because this would only anger the dead person’s family. For some reason, this sequence has burned itself into my memory. Perhaps because of its simplicity, of its plain and simple logic that modern people, especially politicians, have lost or forgotten about a long time ago. 

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere (2000), a fascinating four-hour long-form documentary, is perhaps one of the best films I have seen by the director. Of course, Elsewhere has strong competition. I will never forget the astonishing Homo Sapiens, or the curious Pripyat. Geyrhalter is a documentarian with enough patience to tell important stories, those stories that don’t make it into our field of vision because we’re saturated daily with short-lived story bites that will never stay in our memories. Elsewhere is, however, a powerful example of what time, or rather long duration, can achieve in exploring the world, in exploring life outside of our personal ordinariness, our “normality”, our “modernity”. It allows us to see the wealth around us, the differences, the similarities, in fact everything that makes us human.

Part 1 – January to June 2000

I still remember the 31 December 1999. There was a real hype about it. We would be crossing a magical threshold. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new century. What would it bring? One thing that was clear, at least on telly, was that no one could tell whether the hundreds of nuclear bombs the world hosts would go off all at once because of a computer error. Excitement switched to anxiety, and it became the more apocalyptic the more time passed.

This is, one must admit, the downside of modern life. It can kill us at any moment, and it can do so faster than any traditional life we used to have before the Industrial Revolution sped up our life beyond something we would ever be able to control. Geyrhalter traveled the world and his film is a look into the past, yet a past that is still very present, albeit at the margins. The director is on the lookout for traditional societies, which do not comply with our idea of modernity and therefore of progress. Beginning in Niger, with the lives of the Tuareg, Geyrhalter stops in 12 different regions of the world to show us what has been and what still is. Niger hosts around two million tuaregs. They live in the desert, in vast empty spaces that many would deem hostile. The colours are beautiful, and Geyrhalter’s low-angle camera allows us to get down to the same height as several actions we see. The Tuareg sit on the sand, on stones, or they spend their time traveling on their dromedars. It’s not often that we see them stand up or walk. The most impressive images, to me, are those of low-angle stillness or movement. Three women sit int front of the camera, speaking about the difficulties women face when bringing up children. “They’re hungry all the time,” they say. Only when they grow up do they become useful. A man is afraid that the bush will one day no longer feed the people and that the Tuareg would have to move into town in order to survive.

It’s those interviews, sometimes snippets, that are particularly intriguing in Geyrhalter’s film. He does not simply film what’s in front of his lens. There is an interaction apparent, and there’s no intention hiding it. In Namibia, one hears the interpreter in the background. The presence of the other is not cut. It’s supposed to be there. In Ombivango, shown in beautiful long shots, a man tells us that his job is examining court cases. He tells us that it’s important to prevent the destruction of the environment and that poachers need to be prosecuted. There voilà, the documentary becomes a reminder, perhaps a lesson that we should learn from those who live with the resources they have, knowing that one cannot live on credit, especially not when it comes to natural resources. An inconvenient truth? Maybe, but Geyrhalter doesn’t create an openly environmentally-friendly documentary. This wasn’t his aim. The aim was to observe tradition, and observation is an essential part in a longer, a slower learning process. Elsewhere is an invitation to observe and to learn, to remember what we have forgotten. 

The vast landscapes in Namibia and Niger are juxtaposed with vast landscapes in Greenland and Finland. Reindeer herding and seal hunting – it is here that modernity and tradition clash. A snowy landscape, at night. It looks and feels like the middle of nowhere. But there is a petrol station, a view one would perhaps not expect high up in the north, the farthest north of Finland, far off human civilisation. Civilisation – that are hundreds of reindeer that need to be looked after. Hansa, one of the few Sami people who can still live off reindeer herding is detached from society, but merges with his wintry environment. He becomes one with it. As do Otto and Asiajuk, seal hunters in Greenland, who tell us about the way their work has changed because of Greenpeace activism and Brigitte Bardot. The macro clashes with the micro, the seen with the unseen, unheard, the international with the local. Everything affects everything. This is why sorcerers in West Papua, Indonesia, we are told, are no longer being killed. They are “sent to town”, villages which white men have built in order to settle there. The magnificent tree houses the tribe builds with simple means are mind-blowing. And yet, one wonders when the white men, who live next door, will come too close to this part of simple and traditional life that has survived for centuries. Further south-east, in Australia, the Aboriginals tell us that they want to keep their identity, all the while adopting parts of “white”, or European (as they call it) modernity. And so, while we witness traditional dances, bush fires and hear about circumcision rituals, Aboriginal boys are seen glued to a television over a video game. It seems like we’re witness the merging of two disparate worlds, two opposing times.

Part 2 – July to December 2000

July opens with a beautiful shot in India. A woman hums while preparing tea for everyone. It’s difficult to guess her age. She seems radiant, content in her surrounding. “We should all try to live together in peace,” she says. To her, it’s important to share things with others. It all started with an argument in the village about water. Now, she shares everything she has with everyone. Making up for mistakes in her previous lives, she says. 

What characterises the second part of Geyrhalter’s film is its particular beauty. I had the impression that the director tried to go a little further, enhancing his already magnificent work. At the same time, he moves closer to us. In Russian Siberia, we meet Josip, whose livelihood has been destroyed by oil companies which moved into the area. A native reindeer herder, Josip no longer knows how to live in a polluted, toxic environment, which kills ducks, geese and fish around him. He speaks of the past and how everything used to be better. He sits on a rock at the shores of the sea. Again, Geyrhalter uses a low angle. We’re on the same height as Josip, which makes the interview incredibly personal and intimate. It’s one of the film’s strength – the intimacy between us and those far away. Geyrhalter bridges geographical distances by choosing the right height of the camera. 

It was in 2012, when Wang Bing filmed Three Sisters. A beautiful portrait of three sisters, left behind by their father who works in the city. It’s a portrait shot in the Chinese region of Yunnan. Geyrhalter filmed in that region about a decade earlier. He, too, portrayed the people, albeit the adults more than the children. It seems to be the first part, in which we listen to ongoing dialogue between characters. It’s striking because it’s not something that we’ve been used to in the previous three hours. Women cook, chop vegetables. They are amongst themselves, and it’s here that it becomes evident that the director tries to keep the societal structure within the groups he films intact on film. One woman tells us that people have “walking marriages”. A couple doesn’t move in together. A mother wouldn’t want her daughter to be raised by another woman, for example. So each stays in his/her own respective family. No one ever moves out or away. It’s something, which Han people (the main ethnic group in China) cannot understand, she says. The idea is not only to keep the family together, but also to preserve land. If a couple has 10 kids and each of them marries and builds a house, space for farming will become rare. This is how it works in traditional societies. Children move away and build new. Not so with the Moso people. 

There are two main themes in Elsewhere. First, we have the theme of roots, of home, of tradition. The theme of the past, if you wish, a past that is continuous. The other, opposing theme is that of the present threat to this tradition. There is talk of “the white men” who have built villages in West Papua, those who now prevent the natives from killing sorcerers. There is talk of Greenpeace and its fight against seal hunting and its difficulties for the natives in Greenland. Then there is Denis, a Nisga’a (Canada), who had been sent to residential schools where he was beaten until he no longer spoke the tribe’s language. When he returned home and spoke English only, he was beaten at home, because he no longer understood the Nisga’a language. Tradition was beaten out of him. There is Luigi, a traditional fisherman, who still lives without electricity and running water. “Working doesn’t pay anymore,” he says. Fishmongers only want beautiful fish for the restaurants. Only poor people eat ugly fish. In Micronesia, on the Woleai Atoll, the US dumps what has become known as “Christmas drop”, stuff Americans no longer want are dropped off on the island for Christmas in the hope the natives could use this modern junk. What they use are the parachutes which are used to drop the “drop”. They’re effective mosquito nets…

How would Elsewhere look like today? How has life changed for those twelve tribes/families? I couldn’t help wondering. Elsewhere is an intense documentary that benefits from its long running time. Even though we spend only about twenty minutes with each family, Geyrhalter makes those few images count and leaves us with poignant dialogues and at times breathtaking images that, all together, create an intense film experience. It’s a film that makes one think and wonder, and makes one hope that Geyrhalter will redo this project so that we can see how things have changed. I’d give anything for it!

(Elsewhere is part of the wonderful DVD box set that Icarus has released earlier this year. An absolute must for me, so do check it out! More info on the Icarus website! Read my review on Geyrhalter’s other films, also on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema: Homo Sapiens, Pripyat,  and Abendland.)

Pripyat – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1999)

A woman is walking through a dead landscape. Nature has taken over what Man has built. It’s wilderness we see. “These wild apples grew after the accident. There weren’t apples here before,” she says while slightly turning towards us. She doesn’t stop. She keeps walking. Always on the move. She is a scientist, spending her day in a contaminated lab and checking radiation levels. She had worked in the city centre, she says. And at the nuclear power plant. Of her flat, nothing is left. She enters a rundown building that used to be her home. In one room, she finds a book on the ground that used to belong to her son. “It’s all radiated,” she says, and puts the book on top of the window sill.

It is an eerie but magnificent, haunting but beautiful end to a ghostly film. At the end of the 1990s, Nikolaus Geyrhalter explored “The Zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It often feels like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, more modern perhaps, less philosophical, but just as important. The extensive ending, the woman walking through a wilderness which used to be her home, turns into a hypnotising journey through a place out of time. Pripyat is as timeless as Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. Although it is anchored to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in 1986, it feels as though the film tells more than one story. The black-and-white shots of a rundown, deserted area speak of universal calamity.

Pripyat used to be a workers’ city. A city built from scratch, with a cinema, a stadium. Entertainment – that was important for those who worked at the nuclear power plant. And the city had it all. Geyrhalter introduces us to the now deserted landscape with long shots. His shots are memories, old photographs of things that have been. The deserted buildings become scars that have been left behind by a disaster, which disjointed time. It has blurred the line between past and present. Pripyat shows that both exist at the same time. Life and death – they’re always in one and the same frame. A broken-down electricity pole in an otherwise deserted landscape. A bird’s nest on top of the pole. A sign of life? Absence and presence. (In)Visibility. 

“Well, we don’t call it ‘The Zone’,” an elderly couple tells us. The man confesses that he had been homesick after he and his family had been evacuated, so they returned to live in Pripyat, right in the centre of the contaminated zone that might remain lifeless for decades to come. “I can tell you, there’s no life here. There’s no on else, no neighbours,” he says.

What you see is what you believe. Geyrhalter sure shows us the dying city. Every day, a bit more of it is taken back by nature. Grass, fern, weed, trees. Despite several interviews, the film frames are drained of people. They’re drained of life. And yet. One security guard on the scrapyard for cars says that he got used to the danger. “You cannot see the radiation,” he says. But it is in every frame, an invisible presence that is really the core of the film. A hovering ghost from the past that makes what we see appear timeless. And so do those who have lost their lives in the disaster. They’re still there, invisible reminders of man’s self-destructive development in the name of science and progress. “He has never been found,” a foreman of the power plant’s Unit 3 says while standing in front of a memorial set up for one of the victims who died in Unit 4. Unit 4 – symbol of the worst nuclear destruction since WW II. An accident. An accident that should have been a reminder of the dangers of nuclear development. We didn’t listen. Fukushima was next.

“Even if I’m sent to prison for this. They can lock me up,” the woman scientist says when she speaks about helpers who had arrived from all over the Soviet Union and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She believes that many have since lost their lives. They needed experts, she says, not young man who didn’t even know what radiation was. She accuses the government of sending unknowing people intentionally to the disaster area. 

There is anger. There is concern. One woman is still waiting to be evacuated. For six years. Six years. She has given up believing that someone would ever resettle her. You have to make do. “You have to live and you have to work,” an old woman at the doctor’s says. “But how are you supposed to live?” Geyrhalter shows us people who have been forgotten by the government. The present become the absent on a larger scale, in another dimension. Only a few years after the disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibilities shifted. Those outside the zone continue their lives. Those inside are stuck in an atemporal bubble.

Pripyat is very much a precursor to Homo Sapiens. You cannot ignore the similarity between the two films. What he had started in Pripyat, namely the investigation of what mankind possibly leaves behind one day, Geyrhalter pushes a bit further in Homo Sapiens. There are no more men, no more interviews. Only empty frames, deserted buildings. An apocalyptic feeling which starts with Pripyat. Homo Sapiens feels like a sequel, and which, I might say, deserves another instalment. Geyrhalter is, next to Wang Bing, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working at the moment. Interestingly, the two directors from two different corners of the world share a lot, even simple frames that show up in both directors’ works.

There seems to be a silent conversation between the two, a conversation through film, a conversation that is so often absent in their films. Scarce, basic, casual. If communication exists, it’s a form of communication by those left behind, forgotten, those on the margins who are cut off from the rest of society. Whose livelihood has been destroyed and who make do with what they have. Pripyat is one of those powerful films that makes one aware of the many blind spots that exist around us, of people who, despite everything, simple keep living, defiant of all external threats and neglect. Film becomes a tool to acknowledge this, to take our hats off in face of their courage, and to let them know that not everyone has forgotten.

(Pripyat is part of the newly released DVD Box set of Geyrhalter’s films called Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You can check the website of the distributor, Icarus, for more information. I can highly recommend getting the box set!)

Abendland – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2011)

The first time I came across the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter was when I watched his absolutely superb Homo Sapiens, which was so rich, so affective and so beautiful that I had always wanted to explore the director’s work in more detail. The opportunity comes at the right time because Icarus Films released a DVD Box set with six of Geyrhalter’s films, including, of course, Homo Sapiens. For The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, I will review each one of those films, looking forward, in particular, to his long-form documentaries Elsewhere and Over The Years, whose running time exceed three hours. Abendland, the film I watched last night, is one of Geyrhalter’s shorter works, and, in some ways, foreshadows his later film Homo Sapiens in its subject treatment.

Homo Sapiens focuses on run down buildings, places, structures. It shows the remnants of us, of our lives, the remnants of our ever-present desire to strive for higher only in order to fall low. Homo Sapiens is a film that, to me, shows what we humans will leave behind on this planet. Neglect, abandonment and decay are three dominating visual characteristics that, in Geyrhalter’s breathtaking framing, leaves one in awe – in awe of the sheer beauty of ruins, but also in awe of the incredible waste, the waste of human labour, of resources, of dreams and desires. Homo Sapiens could be a look into a future that is yet to come.

Abendland, on the other hand, brings the human, who is, ironically, absent from Homo Sapiens, the film that actually deals with him most explicitly, back into frame. Abendland is the German term for “the West”. It’s where the sun sets and where the night, where obscurity reigns. It’s a traditional description, a traditional belief, something that divided the world in two; east and west, Abendland and Morgenland, sunset and sunrise. Geyrhalter’s Abendland is, as the film title might suggest, set entirely at night. It begins with a high angle shot of a surveillance camera, which is launched from van. The cam is moved by a man inside the van, a man from Eastern Europe, who looks out for possible trespassing. The film is from 2011, but it hasn’t lost its topicality in the last seven years. On the contrary, Abendland contains several scenes that refer to migration, asylum seekers, refugees. The film takes on another dimension in these days, when our continent as a whole struggles to contain rising nationalism and exclusion while facing an influx of people who seek shelter from autocratic and oppressive governments and societies.

We are in a Roma camp in Eastern Europe that is scheduled to be dismantled. 39 families will be moved to other camps. At night, a man, holding a list of names in his hands, tells everyone when the bus would pick him/her up. The concern for the possibility of families staying together is prominent; will I be able to go with my parents? Where will my grandfather stay? If he gets picked up on Saturday, why am I going to be picked up a day later? There is little space for individual concerns. The directive is clear: clear the camp and send the bulldozers in. It reminds one of the jungle in Calais. It puts on screen what the new Italian government is planning: the deportation of “illegal” Romas, and I put illegal in quotation marks because the term has become an easy excuse for politicians who simply want to rid themselves of foreigners. The discussion of the transport of the 39 families is followed by a long shot of the destroyed camp. Fire, smoke, ruins. What has happened to the families, no one knows.

We are patrolling a border fence around Ceuta with the Spanish Guardia Civil, who look for illegal migrants. We are with the British police, steering mobile CCTV cameras in order to observe the nightlife of people. Zoom in on a “troublemaker”, a man in a wheelchair; zoom in on a black man waiting for someone; zoom in on a heated conversation between three men on a bench. The sheer number of cameras that observe people is stunning. It is a visual manifestation of our addiction to technology, to cameras, to surveillance, to presumed, but false safety. It is an image that makes one think of possible abuse, the loss of privacy in societies that have become more and more paranoid in recent years. The night, the obscurity that surrounds us, doesn’t help the paranoia.

We are in an asylum seeker camp in Germany. A woman tells a man from Lagos that he’s got two choices after his request had been rejected. Either he begins a life in Germany, illegally, sleeping in the streets, running from the police, or returning voluntarily to Lagos as a man with dignity. She says, “You might want to go back and start a business and be successful.” The irony. Or is it sarcasm? Or is she – sorry for my language – just taking the piss? And all of this is juxtaposed with the other side of nightlife in the so-called Abendland. The other side of the coin, the side of excess at Munich’s Oktoberfest, for example, which seems like a parallel world, far removed from helpless asylum seekers, from a group of elderlies being looked after at a care home, removed from premature babies fighting for their lives. The differences are stark, brutal, thought-provoking.

In that way, Abendland is a mirror image of our society. With the help of simple shots, but suggestive juxtapositions, Geyrhalter poses important questions. The film shows us the multiple, often contradictory, faces of society, of life, of a life that continues when most people sleep. In his superb book La Nuit, Michael Foessel describes the night as a possibility of live without a witness that observes you. Geyrhalter has become this witness, and so have we. We witness complex worlds, opposing universes, personal limits and political concerns. There is the care for our own and the rejection of the other. There is an exclusive joy for us, and a struggle put on the shoulders of others. There is a fence, a border, a solid frontier between us and them. Abendland might have been made seven years ago, but what we see is as true as seven years ago, and makes for an eye-opening watch.

(Check the official site of Icarus Film for more details about the DVD Box set and how to order it.)

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.