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.)

Phantom Islands – Rouzbeh Rashidi (2018)

What happens if you plan to write a post on a film that you have been sent to, but find yourself at a loss for words? What happens if the film you have seen makes you think not only of the actual film but about what cinema is and can be? How can I put everything (and all this nothing) that is in my head into words?

Last year, I wrote an article on Straub-Huillet and pondered what “cinema” really meant. Does cinema necessarily mean moving images? Does it necessarily mean a progression of narrative? I came to the conclusion that the definition of cinema could and should be much wider than is sometimes the case. Phantom Islands, which will premiere next week in Ireland, also asked me to consider cinema rather than a single film. Rouzbeh Rashidi has created an experiential film, rather than simple a film per se. Regardless of what I’m going to write here, it won’t allow you to actually feel what the movie does to its audience. Rashidi’s work is complex, episodic, mysterious. It is asking you to think, to reflect and to be with him on this journey to Phantom Island. A physical journey, maybe. But, most important of all, I found that Phantom Islands is a journey through the mind, through the mind’s eye, perhaps even through yourself.

There is something that permeates the entire film and that didn’t let me go. It was Rashidi’s decision to blur most images to varying degrees. No image is fully clear. Neither is it completely blurred. Rashidi plays with degrees of masking, something that gives Phantom Islands a feeling of being exactly this: a phantom. The film, the characters, the scenery, even the music – all of this has a strangely unreal, surreal feeling. As if a ghost creeps up on you without it being a horror film. As if you dream. As if you merely imagine things in your seat instead of watching something that has been created for you to see. It is as if Rashidi puts mind images on screen. Phantom Islands is not a film as such. It is a collection of mind images, sometimes mere flashes of thoughts, sometimes more complex thoughts that take time to develop.

There are several instances in the film, when Rashidi uses quick cuts. The cuts come at an interval that is close to a blink of an eye. A bit longer than that, but still short enough to allow a comparison to my blinking eye, my blinking mind’s eye. This way of cutting made me believe that what I saw was happening in my head. It was a story that played out in my mind. I was the one who blurred the images because I didn’t have clear recollections of the past. This, too, is Phantom Islands: a blurring of the lines between what is and what isn’t, between what is and what has been. The film works like memory: it remembers, but it also forgets. It distorts, it blurs. It makes sense, and it doesn’t. What often remains are images that you’re baffled by, a narrative element that you try to piece together to form an entity.

What do we do to piece memories together? What do we do to keep a record of the past? We take photographs, one of the small but very important elements in Rashidi’s film. The woman protagonist takes polaroid photographs, interestingly showing the photo towards the camera so that we can observe how the polaroid slowly develops into a photo, a photo that nevertheless never really clears up. In the past, photography has been associated with death. Photographs as arrested images, as “killing” something in order to keep it. The photographs the woman holds in her hands appear to haunt us, them, the viewer when s/he walks home. It is one of those uncomfortable situation that makes you wonder whether what you see is not perhaps something paranormal. Here it is once more: the phantom.

It is this very nature of Phantom Islands that asks the viewer to engage in the process of filmmaking. Tarkovsky famously said that a good film should never be finished at the end of the editing process. On the contrary, it should start a new life once it is viewed by an audience. This is precisely what’s happening in and with Phantom Islands. Rashidi hasn’t finished the film. We are the ones who finish it in our heads, both while viewing the film and after. Through the film’s specific aesthetics, Rashidi positions us as the main actor/actress. He makes us believe that what we see happens in our mind. He tricks us, and in so doing, creates a very powerful experimental film that I would like to see again and again, because I know that there is so much to see, so much to discover, to explore. So many questions to ask, so many answers to give.

A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.