The way we pollute and damage the environment are crucial and recurrent topics these days. We all know about them. Perhaps feel guilty or hopeless in front of a problem that is imminent, urgent, and massive. Some push the thoughts away, while more and more try to do something to help. The topic itself has weight and a sense of doom. The need for solutions is urgent. And many films have covered a wide range of environmental issues already. But what Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s new film, Matter Out of Place does is create a distance between the viewer and the problem, and in that space, what surfaces is just how alien and strange the whole problem of waste and its management is, to begin with.
There is garbage everywhere. Plastic reaches even the most remote parts of the planet. As Geyrhalter’s camera shows – in some parts, the amount transforms the landscape completely. It is almost like the waste creates a landscape in itself, overlayed on top of the natural one – the two blending in an image that is troubling and, at the same time, strangely beautiful.
Through slow, observational shots – the film shows the wide reach of waste all over the planet, and just how busy the world is with managing it. And though entire systems are in place for collecting and selecting garbage, more and more of it is produced daily. The sum of the ten different fragments in the film does just that: showing the ubiquitousness of garbage – on mountains, beaches, in the cities, on the surface of the earth and also underneath it, giving a sense that perhaps at a point there could be so much of it, that it would take over the planet.
It is almost like the waste creates a landscape in itself, overlayed on top of the natural one
Observational aesthetic effects
The film portrays the magnitude of the waste issue and reminds us of Eduard Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Anthropocene (2018). However, Geyrhalter’s approach is less about big-scale aesthetics and more observational of the aesthetic effects garbage can create and the processes involved in managing it. The aesthetic of his shots is a mix of pictural beauty and realism. His camera is close enough to see the details yet distanced enough to create a wide-screen portrayal.
The power of the film is in its aesthetic approach, but more than that, it is in just how emotionless the eye cast on each scene seems. The feeling conveyed is almost clinical, a sharp yet detached eye that leaves one engrossed in the absurdity of the problem, the amount of garbage, its paradoxical beauty, and the processes in place for managing it – making one question how this came to be in the first place.
This feeling is, in fact, Geyrhalter’s signature mark – his consistent and keen drive to put the viewers face to face with realities they know exist but never truly observe in their real dimension. His previous films – Our Daily Bread (2005), looking at industrial food production, Homo Sapiens (2016), which is an exploration of places created by humans and then abandoned completely and Earth (2019), which looks at how man takes over and transforms the face of the earth – all cast an emotionally detached yet observant eye on topics that are in a way taken for granted, but they have a whole reality of their own.
It is the same with looking at garbage. Though we all know garbage is being collected in places, that is a process we take for granted and ignore. Watching the film, what seems banal is cut into mechanical pieces. They become a sum of actions and movements, people picking up garbage in a place, bringing it further, others taking over – the whole of this network of humans creating a system that is in place – whether on a beautiful tropical island or on top of a mountain where people go to ski—an active network of moving garbage from one place to another.
Perhaps what makes one genuinely uneasy watching this film is that the scenes, the beauty, the whole of this global issue of waste management portrait in its ten fragments – are eventually fascinating, a visual study. This interestingness, the disquiet, the absurd, and what feels like a clinical eye behind the camera leave one, after watching the whole hour and forty-five minutes, feeling uncomfortable – a rather enduring aftertaste. And so Matter Out of Place does tell of something important, and it does so in a manner closer to art, with no judgement and no conclusion – just giving you the facts in such a way that they become an experience, and it’s up to each one of us what we decide to do with that.
Matter Out of Place screens as part of the FIPADOC 2023 Impact Documenhray programme