by Vladan Petkovic
- BERLIN 2019: Nikolaus Geyrhalter has made one of the most important and poignant environmental documentaries in recent years
Just a couple of months after his The Border Fence [+see also:
film profile] world-premiered at the IDFA, prolific Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter has arrived in the Berlinale Forum with his new film, Earth [+see also:
film profile]. It is one of the most detailed, well-researched, poignant and epic environmental documentaries in recent years.
Inspired by the concept of Anthropocene, which refers to the fact that humans physically influence and shape the planet more than nature itself, Geyrhalter explores gigantic-scale interventions with which we are altering the Earth, for better or – much more frequently – for worse.
The director has visited seven such sites in North America and Europe. The film starts in San Fernando Valley, California, where workers are "moving mountains", literally changing the landscape with their bulldozers and other gargantuan machines. Next up, he heads to the Brenner Pass, between Austria and Italy (the same location where The Border Fence takes place), and looks at the creation of a new tunnel through the “meat of the mountain”, as one of the engineers puts it. Further on, in the coalfields of Gyöngyös in Hungary, miners are extracting the ore with little regard for the surface of the land itself. In Carrara, Italy, the world-famous marble is being quarried by “chipping away at the mountains”. The Rio Tinto copper mines and adjoining Corta Lago silver mines in Spain are described as the mines of the Roman Empire, which in the past were used to finance imperial military operations in Northern Europe and are still a crucial site for the production of the materials that we use daily in electronics and communication. The former salt mines of Asse in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, have for decades been used to store nuclear waste, due to the depth of the shafts and their relative distance from water sources. But this only reflected a "short-term or, at best, mid-term" understanding of the level of safety that would be required for the mines to remain useable for such purposes. Finally, in Fort Mackay, Canada, at the infamous Alberta tar sands (most famously depicted in Peter Mettler's incredible Petropolis), Geyrhalter talks to native Canadians living in the area, as access to the site for cameras, and outsiders in general, is strictly prohibited.
Geyrhalter adorns this extremely complex theme with his trademark rigorous narrative structure, and it works wonders. Every segment starts with an aerial view of a site, and is followed by interviews with workers and experts, alternating with shots of their actual Earth-altering activities. Some of them give more or less predictable statements, such as Californian diggers who are proud of their work and see it as a contribution to society, but the awareness of some of the others of the negative impact their efforts are having on the planet is almost surprising.
For instance, a Hungarian coal miner says he was devastated when he went to visit glaciers and realised how much they have decreased in size in the last 100 years. In Spain, an engineer speaks with the geohistorical knowledge of a university professor when he posits that the ploughing of soil, fumigation, pesticides, mining and fishing using dragnets are all violent ways of taking away from the Earth, and that humankind has never learned anything from its own history.
Similarly to what he did in The Border Fence, Geyrhalter has taken a crucial topic for humanity and both shown us the severity of its impact and given us real hope that these effects can still be turned around, thanks to the awareness of people who are dealing with them directly. The problem, then, clearly lies with those whom these reasonable and intelligent people work, or vote, for.
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