Under consideration in this review are two documentaries that defy conventional expectations even for a genre not particularly known for commercialism. The first is “Cameraperson”, which is basically excerpts from documentaries in which Kirsten Johnson served as lead cameraperson, none lasting more than ten minutes or so and often without providing any kind of context for the excerpted film’s overall design. Although often mystifying, it is never without interest. The second is “Homo Sapiens”, a film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that has an ironic title given that not a single human being is seen throughout the film. Indeed, it consists of nothing but scenes from abandoned cities and towns across the world and as such has a dystopian quality far more disturbing than any Mad Max movie since it is all very real. I can recommend both films to students of film, which does not mean that you are enrolled at NYU or UCLA but that you have a taste for the offbeat and especially those works that are trying to get to the heart of the human condition in a world coming apart at the seams.
Kirsten Johnson’s film was the closing night feature at the 2016 New Directors/New Films Festival at Lincoln Center and will now open on September 9th at the IFC in New York. Johnson’s film includes excerpts from 24 films over the years, most of which would be of interest to those who follow my reviews and some of which I have covered including “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Citizenfour”. While most of her work is on such political films, there are also a number that are almost impossible to categorize including “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity” that is foreshadowed by the strange sound of some heavy object hitting something soft and pliant, like a 50-pound bag of potatoes being dropped on a mattress from the top of a five story building—the kind of stunt David Letterman used to favor. It turns out that the sound is from dancers falling on a cushioned platform from about a 20-foot-high platform in line with choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s envelope pushing aesthetic.
Johnson has risked her life making films in war-torn locales, including Bosnia, Darfur and Liberia. In conversation with friends she made in Bosnia who were principals in “I Came to Testify”, she can barely hold back tears. This is obviously a woman who made films for the same reason I got involved in radical politics. It was not for the money.
In addition to the excerpts from the documentaries and her reminiscences with the people featured in them, a large part of the film involves her in conversation with her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In trying to help her mother retrieve lost memories, she evokes the overall theme of the film, which is the importance of film and photography in enshrining the past.
Johnson is most eloquent about the ambivalent feelings she has about her role:
The people I film are in immediate and often desperate material need, but I offer little to nothing material.
I can and will leave a place I film (a war, a refugee camp, etc.) when the people I film cannot.
I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.
I ask for trust, cooperation and permission without knowing where the filming experience will lead the subject.
I alter the balance of power by my presence and act on behalf of one side or another in a conflict.
My work requires trust, demands intimacy and entails total attention. To both me and the people I film, it often feels like a friendship or family, but it is something different.
I know little about how the images I shoot will be used in the future and can not control their distribution or use.
My work can change the way my subject is perceived by the people who surround him/her and can impact reputation or safety for years into the future.
I follow stories the director I work for does not need and/or want me to follow.
I fail to see or follow stories the director I work for hopes I will follow.
One of these points resonates with my own feelings about a life spent trying to make a revolution in the USA: I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.
I first encountered the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter almost exactly 10 years ago. His “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration and simply depicted visually the process of food production in fields, barns, slaughterhouses, etc. From my review:
The images of “Our Daily Bread” will linger in the viewer’s mind like a bad dream. Two men and overalls are attending to a cow with a gaping hole in its side, out of which they extract new born calves. We do not know why the animal is not allowed to give birth in the normal fashion, but have to assume that this born of scientific necessity and the need to maximize profits. Chickens are hurtled at high speed on conveyor belts into awaiting crates. When one falls off, a worker picks it up by its feet and throws it into another carton as if it were a plastic part. Indeed, one can only conclude that in order to survive on such a job, it becomes necessary to become utterly detached from what you are doing. If you have any sense of compassion for the animal kingdom, it will only get in the way of performing your job. When one is paid to slit the throats of chickens 8 hours a day, it is best not to think about what you are doing.
“Homo Sapiens” is also a bad dream of sorts, even though not so nearly as shocking as “Our Daily Bread”. There is no killing as such in the film, only the aftermath so to speak—the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. Once again sans narration, you can only surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located. You get some of the same feeling of desolation and loss traveling around Sullivan County where I grew up—the Borscht Belt. When I and my wife’s brother-in-law strolled around the ruins of the once glamorous and thriving Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, I could not help but feel that I was in a kind of graveyard.
In the press notes for “Homo Sapiens”, Geyrhalter describes his goal in making such a film:
- Homo Sapiens is a film about the finiteness and fragility of human existence and the end of the industrial age, and what it means to be a human being.
- What will remain of our lives after we’re gone?
- Empty spaces, ruins, cities increasingly overgrown with vegetation, crumbling asphalt: the areas we currently inhabit, though humanity has disappeared. Now abandoned and decaying, gradually reclaimed by nature after being taken from it so long ago.
- Homo Sapiens is an ode to humanity as seen from a possible future scenario.
“Homo Sapiens” opens tomorrow at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Highly recommended for those with a taste for the unconventional and a shared belief with the director that we are coming to the end of the industrial age—one hopefully that ushers in a New Age based on the rational use of resources and technology to serve human needs rather than private profit.