REVIEW: "HOMO SAPIENS" - SPENDING TIME WITH AN IMAGE
In the age of instagram, staring at a striking picture for longer than five seconds isn’t entirely uncommon. Of course, we control the amount of time we spend with each photoshopped image: a beach front, a grand landscape or an abandoned building...at times, leaving a ’nice’ or ‘wow’ comment if the photo was particularly impressive. Rarely does this awe-moment last more than a few seconds and as quickly as we identify it as visual art, the image vanishes into the black hole of our cyber feed.
Now imagine a 94 min. instagram feed with a succession of moving images of abandon places all over the world, each lasting anywhere from 10-20 seconds. This is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s silent documentary film "Homo Sapiens." And, yes. This is an art film and though it's definitely not nearly as painful as sitting through Warhol’s Empire (watch the entire 8 hour version here in 144p - seriously), there is a certain endurance required, even for high-brow cinephiles.
I was lucky enough to attend the film's Austrian premiere at the Gartenbaukino in attendance of the filmmakers and witness its cinematic glory in crisp 4K and Dolby Atmos surround sound.
And then, for me it happened: As soon as the triviality of the eerie apocalyptic images surrounding the Fukushima disaster dissipated, I really began honing in on the penetrating details of each frame. My ears soon adjusted to the fact that no human-made sounds penetrated the film: No cars. No planes. No back-up beeper usually plaguing every documentarian's exterior shot. Utter human absence.
The vibrant, yet decrepit urban remains became characters with personalities, and their common bond of total human abandonment hinted at a plot of sorts. Nearly forgotten musings from my Film Theory & Criticism days brought Paul Schrader's thesis "Transcendental Style in Film" to mind, where he is quick to dismiss such "oversparse" and "Stasis" films like this one, claiming that film-paintings void of true cinematic movement or flux could never produce sacred art or the transcendental film style of an Ozu, Bresson or Dreyer. Clearly, it never was Geyrhalter's intent to near the spiritual with this film, but I couldn't help trying to label my viewing experience as something transcendental. Beyond the tangible concept of the wastelands we leave behind as humans, the complete void of people created a heightened awareness of our identity. And the incessant reminder of just how empty our inventions, buildings and amusement parks are, further fed my existentialist dismal human outlook.
As a filmmaker, the romantic notion of filming cool places, an "endless B-ROLL shoot" of sorts, seems overly luxurious and totally awesome. Who wouldn't want to travel the world capturing remote ruins, buildings and landscapes? No actors. No interviews. Nirvana. Back to the roots of the Lumiére days of expedition films or, post 1907, travelogues. But to film over the course of four years, constantly working on access to places only known to a few gatekeepers, winning them over by swearing never to reveal the location, and to pursue image after image with such tenacity marks a dedicated artist and craftsman like Nikolaus Geyrhalter.
In an interview, Geyrhalter explained his relationship with the images he wanted to capture, how certain locations and frames begged for manipulation to introduce necessary variety in movement and lighting.
"Filming Homo Sapiens was a process of dealing with what was available – but we manipulated what was available whenever we felt it necessary. For example, we created wind. At some point during the editing process it became apparent that there was no movement in many of the interiors, and it wasn't possible to deal with this lack of life just by adding sound. Sometimes we arranged the lighting, and often we used digital aids to make the objects more perfect and retain concentration. We didn't want any human noises at all to be heard, which meant we could hardly record any original sound at all. The sounds that we hear were created carefully for each image, from archive material and a great deal of sound recorded especially for that purpose."
Oh. And did I mentions critters, amphibians, birds, creatures and animals? Also Birds. Lots of birds. Nature was alive and well. The animal kingdom offered a serene orchestral accompaniment, adding even more to the absence of homo sapiens.