By Yun-hua Chen.
They were scenes that were a bit more exchangeable; we could choose and find different ways of shooting these scenes, and we were not depending on one specific location. In the end, we found locations that could show that there is a problem.”
Austrian Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter has mastered the art of storytelling through attentive observation of space in the form of documentaries for almost three decades. He travels around the world to explore different aspects of life that have been hidden from view; the banks of Danube in Angeschwemmt (1994), post-war Bosnia in The Year After Dayton (1997), Chernobyl area in Pripyat (1999), food production factories in Our Daily Bread (2005), infrastructures that run throughout nights in Abendland (2011), forgotten places in Homo Sapiens (2016), mines and querries in Earth (2019). This time, with Matter Out of Place that premiered at the Concoso Internazionale section of the Locarno International Film Festival, Nikolaus Geyrhalter turned his attention to our waste disposal.
Continuing with his interest in human-machine relationship, the film opens with a digger that churns out a pile of rubbish underneath a meadow. When a piece of newspaper is picked up from the pile, in the voice-over we hear, “you can still read the newspaper”. While news has become history, newspaper is turned into wastes buried underground and whose existence we refuse to acknowledge unless the digger digs them out.
That conversation was the last audible human voices until the very end of the film when a group of garbage-pickers comb through the deserts of Nevada. The film lets images speak for themselves, and by doing that, the existence of wastes has a say of its own. As the film captures the working of garbage dispensers from different places, ranging from an automated sorting system in Switzerland to manual garbage collection in Nepal, from a dispenser dangling from a teleferic in a ski resort in the air to under the water by divers in Maldives, there is a certain kind of meditative quality to the long and focused observation of the process. It is Sisyphos-like and mechanic, reflecting on these materials’ life before being turned into wastes. At this point Geyrhalter completes a full cycle as a documentary filmmaker, having documented the life and death of materials from production to disposal, and from bread to compost.
The camera being calmly observational, Geyrhalter’s comments are embedded in his choice of the camera position and angle, and the snippets that get to be edited in. Matter Out of Place portrays human life, and the consequences of human life, through the absence of human beings and through the materials that we refuse to look at: plastic bottles on the beach in Maldives, littered desert, garbage mountains where the impoverished forage for still usable and sellable materials.
There is beauty in debris through Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s cinematography and something deeply humane in his attentive observation of human-made machinery, all while the ignored and forgotten become painfully visible and almost smellable.
Where did the idea of the film come from, and how did you choose your locations?
We were making this film for the last five years. It was a rather long time, also because of the pandemic and so on. In terms of the locations, there was a list of images that I wanted to have in this film. There were some locations where we needed to go, and there was no way around it. There were other locations such as those piles of trash. They were scenes that were a bit more exchangeable; we could choose and find different ways of shooting these scenes, and we were not depending on one specific location. In the end, we found locations that could show that there is a problem, and we wanted to find locations that the audience would not have looked at or had access to otherwise.
We had footage that filled four hard drives in the end. The editing decision was not much about the footage but rather about the locations.
The image of digging is rather metaphorical. Is that how you see it too?
Yes, some things are hidden. They are just there. You just have to have a close look. I like this scene of digging out nice green grass and then we were all surprised at what was underneath. That’s how our society works. We have to see what we don’t look at and don’t want to think about. It’s the same thing with trash. We put it in a bin, or maybe many different bins, and you think that you are a good person because it is going to be recycled. But still, problems start at that point. It does not disappear like that.
It was a very sensual experience in the way that we could almost smell it when watching the film…
Sometimes, yes, of course. When you choose a topic like this, you must not be afraid of this. Although you don’t smell through the cinema, you can imagine it. If you decide to make a film about trash, you have to go where the trash is.
Some scenes are long because a lot of things happen, and they develop. They start to have their own life.”
This human and machine relationship was very interesting in your film: garbage dispenser, digger, cable cars carrying garbage dispensers in a ski resort. Do you feel that human-machine relationship reflects human life and civilization?
Of course. We try to build machines to make our life easier or to solve problems that we created ourselves, basically. It is also fascinating to see what kind of machines we are capable of building, but it is always too late. Once the machine is there, other problems are created. You can kind of try to solve it, but it’s just always a plan B. I felt, when I was shooting the movie, it is a step of evolution with every step we make as an entire society. Like, a hundred years ago, there were not a lot of wastes, and when we threw something out of the window, it would disappear. But the humankind did not really understand that all the new material will not simply disappear and will stay forever, in fact. If we bury our trash somewhere, maybe the next generation will dig it out again. Even if we burn it, there is still a lot of material left in the end. So, even if you recycle something, maybe it will have a second or third life, but in the end, it still ends up in the trash. Whatever we throw into trash, it does not just disappear.
Watching your films has been a very immersive experience. How do you decide on the length of each take?
Some scenes are long because a lot of things happen, and they develop. They start to have their own life. When that happens, it makes sense to let the camera roll for as long as it takes. But it is not the case that for every scene, if you don’t edit and just keep it roll for a long time, it gets stronger. It’s not that simple. It will get boring. The way I choose images is like creating a stage, and then something may happen there. If it happens, don’t stop it.
You covered a lot of environmental issues in your film career. What would be the next environmental issue that you will cover?
The next film that I am doing is something a little different, about snow and ice, relating to the rise of the sea level and that’s where water comes from. It’s about going to places where there is snow and ice. In the way that things develop right now, maybe in the next generations, they will not be there anymore. It will be a very white film.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).