With “Homo Sapiens”, director Nikolaus Geyrhalter paints a haunting dystopian vision of civilization minus its creators. This unique documentary consists of nothing but steady, perfectly framed wide-shots of abandoned structures and wastelands. Imagine Wes Anderson doing location shots for “The Walking Dead” and you’ll be getting warm.
A location — often trashed, overgrown, or otherwise run-down — flashes onto the screen and remains there for 20-30 seconds, disturbed by nothing but the wind or the pattering of rain. Then another, and another, and another, and you are rhythmically drawn into a world that even dystopian sci-fi dreads to go: a vision of post-mankind Earth.
Given the known extinction threats to humanity — rising seas, plagues, asteroid hits, nuclear bombs, an overload of toxic pollution of the air and water — it is hard to not view “Homo Sapiens” (Japan title, “Jinrui Isan”) as a warning. In a telephone interview with Geyrhalter, I asked him whether the film was intended as such.
“Any type of documentary filmmaking nowadays is a warning,” he replies with a grim laugh. “This is not a film that gives any answers. It’s a form of meditation. You have an audience with 100 people, and they all see the same film but have 100 different interpretations. It’s an experience, rather than a film that takes you by the hand from beginning to end.”
While some will no doubt find a dialogue- and music-free sequence of abandoned buildings as interesting as watching paint dry, there is a thriving online otaku (obsessive fan) subculture devoted to haikyo (ruins) and “urban exploration” in Japan and across the world. (See UrbEX, www.urbex.nl/site, which Geyrhalter says was an invaluable resource in scouting locations.) As cheap airline travel and online information has made even the remotest destinations quotidian, the new exotic can be found only in what is off-limits: abandoned buildings and mines, evacuated zones, disaster sites — basically going places that people don’t go and documenting them.
Geyrhalter — an Austrian filmmaker who has previously made docs about Chernobyl’s evacuated zone (“Pripyat,” 1999) and factory farming (“Our Daily Bread,” 2005) — spent nearly five years, as he puts it, “just trying to find the locations, places that were accessible, that had enough decay to fit the theme of the film. But they also had to be in a stage where they were recognizable.”
Every shot in “Homo Sapiens” poses the questions: Where is this? What was it for? What happened? Sometimes, the sequence of shots reveals their mystery. A bunch of boats strewn in a field and a fully-stocked jidōhanbaiki (vending machine) being swallowed up by vegetation — like some Andy Warhol take on Angkor Wat — clearly come from the evacuated zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Chernobyl, Gunkanjima, and post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans are also easily recognizable, but other locations remain obscure.
When asked why he didn’t credit the locations in the film, Geyrhalter replies, “I think Fukushima was a kind of catastrophe that nobody couldn’t recognize, those images were so played in the media. But later on (in the film) the images become more universal in a way, and it’s less important where they actually are, because what it’s showing could be anywhere and everywhere. In the end, we decided to leave it anonymous; it’s more a portrait of complete extinction.”
While the film’s even, long-take shots are common for slow cinema, I ask whether it was ever tempting to use a mobile camera and explore the terrain.
“Ideally, people will view the film as if there were no humans left,” says Geyrhalter with a dark laugh. “We didn’t want to move the camera, because you would ask yourself: Who is moving the camera?
“We developed a language of these basic wide-angle shots that were always at the center of the location. We also often placed the camera higher than normal eye-level; we used ladders and chairs to get to like three to four meters of height, to have more depth of field, a wider overview. Somebody called it a God-like view, and I wouldn’t put it like that, but the main idea was we wanted to create a camera language that was not the human point of view.”
While “Homo Sapiens” seems like the purest form of documentary, that’s not entirely true. Geyrhalter notes that he didn’t use any original sound from the locations, “because it would be polluted by some human noises like cars or airplanes.”
“I had two sound designers working on the film and they really re-created the soundscapes for each shot, completely without any human influence,” he explains. “Anyway, it was more fun to have a really close and detailed look at the shot and say, ‘Here the leaves are blowing, and there the wind is moving this part.’ … it was a more creative approach.”
If fine-tooling faux-found sounds raindrop by raindrop sounds a bit mad, Geyrhalter would agree; he laughs when noting that “the soundtrack was probably harder to achieve than the imagery.”
Geyrhalter shot in Fukushima just 4 kilometers from where the reactor meltdowns took place. He had to take constant precautions to monitor the radiation levels where they were shooting to avoid inhaling hot particles. As in Chernobyl, he is one of the few to look directly at the results of environmental catastrophe. “Sometimes it is more interesting to see what happens five or 10 years after the accident, after the media coverage has all gone away,” he says.
I ask him about his feelings upon returning to the bustle of Tokyo after the dead stillness of the evacuation zone, the two so close yet seemingly on different planets.
“It was the same with Chernobyl, actually. Life was going on as normal, but we were really only a 90-minute drive away,” he says. “People tend to pretend that everything is OK and that nothing is going wrong; they couldn’t go on otherwise. I think it’s about the illusion that everything is OK.
“It just shows how fragile our civilization actually is. We never think that anything could happen to us, but in the end, if something should happen, nobody would miss us. Nature would reclaim everything.”
“Homo Sapiens” is currently showing at Theater Image Forum.