Elsewhere

02/12/2012

Austria / 2001 / Faliasch, Tamashek, Sardinian, Saami, Ojihimba, Muoso, Ladakhi, Kunwinjku, Korowai, Khanty, Greenlandic, German & English

Directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

Still from 'Elsewhere'At first the concept seems born of filmmaker’s bravado, or a certain high-handedness in choosing subjects to document: in the year 2000, Nikolaus Geyrhalter traveled to twelve different parts of the globe (one for each month of the year) to create naturalistic portraits of traditional lifestyles at varying proximity to extinction. The subjects do all the talking, through their actions and through candid soliloquies to the camera. One could think of the people’s speech, on things like family, social mores, routines, and their relationships to the outside world, as a continuous monologue on disenfranchisement. By combinations of geography, politics, and language, they are separated from the rest of the world, but there is no pure isolation; it’s always diluted, to varying degrees, and the strength and character of their respective cultures indicates a connection to a human network that has changed and migrated continuously, like a cloud of global marbles.

Some episodes take place in classic examples of what people in the West think of as “the back of beyond” (Siberia, Greenland, Micronesia, Lapland), while others look at rather extreme interiors (Ladakh, Irian Jaya, the mountains of Yunnan), while others choose paradigms of human resistance to encroaching civilization (Aborigines in Arnhem Land, Tuareg in the Sahara, Himba people in Namibia, Nisga’a people in Canada, and Sardinian fisherfolk). We see about twenty minutes of footage from each place before the film arrives mechanically at the next. Once the camera is gone, it may seem as though these people and places return to the obscurity from whence they came. But a veil has been lifted, if momentarily. The film is not the exercise in globetrotting that it promises, but a snapshot of a moment in time, the litany of ends and beginnings that spells the destiny of the planet.

Elsewhere is free of commentary, or at least, from that of the filmmakers. The pronouncements by the people in front of the camera constitute its verbal articulation, whose inclusion acts as a form of commentary in itself. The time at which things feel most propagandist is in the British Columbia episode, when the First Nation protagonists carve ceremonial poles, parade in traditional dress, and speak formally about the gutting of their land by Western capitalists. That’s not to say that their plight isn’t quite poignant, but this part does have by far the more encompassing and direct plaintiveness of any of the film’s segments. For the most part, though, the film happens so quietly, and things occur to us so passively, that there could just as well be no demand on the audience whatever. But to be receptive to what we are seeing, from Elsewhere‘s very loud, millennial conceit on downward, is to recognize its concrete ramifications. This isn’t just a lone filmmaker documenting people before gamely setting off for the next wild location; he has an impact, as do his producers, drivers, and translators. There is no claim to the contrary. At one point, a member of a Muoso family in Southwestern China interrupt their evening meal to look through the camera’s viewfinder. True, things are falling away, the record of existence of these cultures being a signal of their transformation.

Still from 'Elsewhere'At the same time there is a sense of life coming into being at this moment, a hybridized existence that picks up from where tradition once defined everything. Perhaps paradoxically, this existence effectively dawns in the areas least associated with progress and change, where modernity has not fully penetrated. In all of the film’s subjects, traditional ways of life have not yet dried up, and yet there don’t seem to be any people for whom it has not made a large and permanent difference. The very presence of the filmmakers signals that these places are elsewhere no longer, that they are accessible now, numbers of a fading few frontiers whose secrets have yet to be totally compromised.

The people seem pretty attuned to how much the modern world is changing, and how that affects them, and it’s usually quite tangible. A young woman who Geyrhalter follows, a schoolteacher from an atoll in Micronesia, refers to the yearly crate of gifts dropped by an American airplane as “trash,” since that is what it is, once it’s been used up. Can we be willing to give a second thought to our garbage even if we don’t live on a small island? The lessons are right here with us, brought into sharp relief in the more fragile reaches of our world. The hunters in Greenland blame a crusading Brigitte Bardot for harming the seal trade from which they made a living. At the same time they are still in touch with how their dreams will predict whether a deer hunt will be successful (the most successful indicated by a dream of a beautiful Western woman – possibly with a French accent?). The parting scene with the two men shows one of the men shopping in a modern supermarket. Many of the people we meet in Geyrhalter’s film cannot be wholly self-reliant anymore. The have few options other than to pursue a traditional way of life (like the man from Sardinia who talks about having dropped out of school to pursue his ancestral occupation on a trawler), but at the same time cannot live it to the fullest because of being so entangled with a modern society that advances rapaciously.

In one sense Geyrhalter is depicting sensitive ecologies and shrinking ways of life. All the people in the film belong to small populations that would barely make a ripple if they were transplanted to even a modestly-sized city. But it is perhaps because of their smallness that they manage to keep what is uniquely theirs, even in the face of change. We follow a Saami herdsman and hunter in the north of Finland, a solitary man who nonetheless carries with him the teachings of his ancestors, albeit aided by a snowmobile and modern rifle. The Khanty herder in Siberia bemoans the ruinous impact of Russian oil companies but takes the minor compensation of being able to use their helicopters once in a while. Being brought into step with the contemporary world is, across the board, a deeply ambivalent process, and one finds one’s opinions on it bifurcated at nearly every possible juncture.

Still from 'Elsewhere'Just like the modern, the traditional elements of life refuse to stay put, changing shape in the minds of those who practice them. The Himba woman and senior wife in her family talks about how she and her husband kidnapped a younger woman he fancied to make her his second. The protests of the victim’s family caused them to return her and arrange a legitimate marriage. As she describes it she seems suspect of the practice, as well as quite aware of the overdetermined hatred she has for any wives subsequent to her. A Korowai man from West Papua talks about the good old days when his people would cook and eat a person accused of sorcery. In his nostalgia it is difficult to discern whether or not he prefers that to the comparatively less violent methods used now. Even though the Korowai maintain an essentially Stone Age lifestyle, it is not altogether immune to change – there are shifting elements within it.

The overall approach is a holistic one, blanketing wildly divergent territories with its unified tack. If it were not for the systematic way that the scenes are arranged, it would feel more like a collage than it does. But we can move from the arctic to the South Pacific to the desert and not be numbed to the immediacy of the individual experiences. So what, aside from analyzing the dreams of Greenlanders, are we doing here? Is the film’s angle meant to be environmental, political, sociological, or a complex aggregate thereof? Just as those things become increasingly intertwined in the Twenty-First Century, so, seemingly, does our collective destiny. Wanting us to think more about these aspects of life, to consider cause and effect as it resonates through all corners, the idea that the filmmakers drive forward is that the issues that come up repeatedly are, in fact, inseparable, if not one and the same.

The film is not burdened with the need to make a point, however. It is content with the people it is documenting acting as the main message, as obvious or ambiguous as it may be throughout different points in its four hours. Early on it becomes apparent that this isn’t just a travelogue with an inflated sense of purpose, nor does the preconceived exoticism of the locales diminish the intimate contact that takes place when the director pushes the red button. Quiet, lucid, fastidious, and without music, Elsewhere plants the viewer, like a fallen alien surveillance unit, in places that are remote, both literally and in spirit. But it also shows us how remoteness does not define these places, just as isolation does not define the people who live there.

Still from 'Elsewhere'What we experience in these glimpses is about both isolation and interconnection, about old and new ways jostling through the modern era. He is making a case that no place or culture is so cut off that nothing from the rest of the world affects it at all. That is demonstrated time and time again throughout the film, and this is where its political imperative exists. Because the things that are done in the developed world can manifest themselves even in these “elsewheres” – and often do, in more concentrated and urgent ways – so we should never think ourselves removed from them. Geyrhalter is taking us to places that feel like they should be marginal, of a separate world, and showing us that this is not the case at all. Nothing is beyond the pale now, and you can never be too far from civilization to matter. Whereas before the people in this film existed on the fringe of continental maps, or were lost in the indistinctness of an uncharted interior, or were denied recognition of who they were (some possibly still do), it no longer makes sense to define them in terms of their otherness to the developed world. We can, of course, still ignore what goes on in Greenland, Siberia, or Micronesia, but doing so detracts from our development, rather than advancing it.

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