The Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter is once again presenting his work at the Berlinale. With his documentary Homo Sapiens, the filmmaker offers a critical portrait of our civilization. After four years of work, across Europe, the US, Argentina and Japan, Homo sapiens takes a deep look at the impact of our presence on earth, the future of mankind and our role in the current ecological crisis. Through a fictive narration, the film forces us to ask ourselves: What should we do about these issues? Is it too late? And, should we stay optimistic about the evolution of our species? Composed solely of static shots without any commentary, Homo Sapiens brings something unique to this 66th edition of the International Festival of Cinema in Berlin. We spoke to Nikolaus Geyrhalter to learn more about the meaning behind Homo Sapiens.
Marc Girardot: Since the beginning of your career environmental issues have been a big focus. In 1999, you made a documentary called Pripyat about the people still living in the area affected by one of the most important environmental crises of our history, the Chernobyl disaster. You also received the Grand Prix in 2006 at the International Festival of Environmental Cinema in Paris for your documentary Unser täglich Brot which describes the technology and labour used by the agriculture industry. How did you develop these topics further in Homo Sapiens?
Nikolaus Geyrhalter: I think it is always interesting to look at our society from one angle to the other. You cannot look at our society without understanding what is the price of the way of living that we’ve achieved. So, for me, you can’t separate them: the way we live, what we leave behind, what kind of ecological disasters we produce. It is one big topic. One film tackles it from one angle, the next one tackles it from another. But it is always these topics that need to be treated.
MG: This film shows nature dominating human work through time. Homo Sapiens presents the evolution of our technology as directly responsible for our civilization’s degradation.
NG: Their were some topics that I really wanted in this movie, like all the environmental issues of course, but also some characteristics of mankind which I wanted to criticize: how we treat animals, how we are treating each other with wars… This movie should offer a very critical point of view. We were looking for locations that could express this.
MG: There are some shots showing the McDonalds’ logo, a symbol of consumer society. Presenting these images a few minutes after the documentary has started implies that these companies should be held accountable. In your opinion, what is the role of these multinational companies in the environmental disasters that we are experiencing?
NG: This question is raised in the film. But I can’t give you the answer. Of course, having the symbol of McDonald’s in the film tells a lot about our presence, the way that we live. This film raises a lot of questions if you watch it. This is what a documentary should do: not to give answers but raise questions.
MG: In Homo Sapiens, you have created a narration in post-production. What is the meaning of this structure and how has it influenced your way of filming these locations?
NG: We didn’t have the structure at the very beginning, it grew with time. At some point, it was clear that there will be nothing in the film but spaces and the sound recorded in these places. Then we had to find the structure. It was probably the most complicated part because there are a series of images which have to be put together. They are telling the story of one specific town, village, or island. And then, there were other images of locations which tell everything in one shot. So we decided, at the beginning, to be more narrative in a way and build up a narration that would give more details about humankind. Later on, it is more about nature turning against humanity in general with sand, water, wind, ice… So this is the way we decided to go. We came to these buildings and we asked ourselves: “How could they contribute to our story?”
Sometimes, we produced the meaning on our own because we needed some things to move forward. Filmmaking is a very complicated process. To produce the film and make things look like they were just there, is not always easy. You can easily take photographs like this because you have a long exposure but you can’t do it with a film. Sometimes we made images showing footprints or graffiti because it could be included in the story line. But the main focus should really be on nature coming back and not what human kind left before leaving.
MG: The research you made to find locations that you could include in Homo Sapiens is truly impressive. During the screening I wondered so many times how you found these places. What was your criteria for their selection? Did they evolve during the filming?
NG: We needed specific locations, that should still be in a state where you could tell what they were in the past. They had to also be accessible and it had to be clear who the owner was. On the internet you find millions of abandoned buildings but it doesn’t mean that you know in which country they are and if they are still existing. Very often, we experienced that places had changed very quickly. One time we saw some very beautiful pictures of a location. We went there and it was full of graffiti. Another time it no longer existed. Several times we ended it up there just after a Caterpillar. We tried to be informed as much as possible but, as I said, things are changing very quickly.
MG: The structure of the documentary is composed of a mirror effect: you chose to show this location, which seems to be an abandoned temple, as the opening shot and as the closing one as well. Why have you made this choice? What does it bring to the story line of your documentary?
NG: First of all, we had the material to make this possible, because it is a very impressive location. At the beginning, we had these mosaics working as a prologue. This abandoned temple is directly connected to these mosaics, which show a really interesting representation of mankind. It became logical to close the film with this location.
MG: Nikolaus Greyhalter, are you optimistic about the future of humanity? Do you believe that we are going to experience the same curse of past civilizations that your film seems to suggest?
NG: It is not so much about what I believe. It is just about pointing out the different possibilities. I mean, you can read the film like there are no more humans, this is all that’s left. It is the first way to understand the film. But if you ask me, it is more a film about our presence, humankind in present times. So it is also a portrait of our society. I am just looking at what we leave behind.