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“Out of sight, out of mind,” says a man early in Matter Out of Place. It’s a comment that is darkly ironic in the context of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest documentary. In fact, the irony would apply to most of Geyrhalter’s work. One of contemporary cinema’s leading non-fiction auteurs, the Austrian director has spent the better part of the last three decades documenting the consequences of modernity that most of us – especially in the West – never get to see, and can therefore comfortably ignore, even though they are part and parcel of our very existence.
Just as Unser täglich Brot (2005) observed the processes of industrial food production and Earth (2019) the destruction wreaked by massive mining sites across the world, Matter Out of Place reveals the extent of our production of waste. (“Matter Out of Place,” as an opening title card informs us, is a term that describes “any object or impact not native to the immediate environment”.) Always working as his own cinematographer, Geyrhalter’s method entails photographing his subjects in monumental tableau that he usually holds for extended shot lengths, inviting our contemplation by leaving us in awe of the reality unfolding in front of us. That these often terrifying images can be very beautiful renders them all the more troubling.
An endless line of trucks filled to the brim with garbage make their way to a landfill somewhere in South Asia. Their loads are piled onto a heap whose height rivals the verdant hills all around. The sight of this mountain of refuse invites a comparative cut to a peak in the Alps, where in the distance skiers can be seen crossing the pristine snow. From the top of the ski resort, a garbage truck is carried underneath a cable car to the village below, floating across the air in an image of surreal poetry. From there, the film travels to a luxury resort in the tropics, where the postcard scenery is spoiled by masses of plastic washing up among the palm trees.
Rather than point his finger, Geyrhalter focuses on the people who dedicate themselves to cleaning up the planet: from waste management companies in Western Europe; to volunteer organizations in the Balkans; to a lone South Asian man collecting trash door-to-door with his hand-pulled rickshaw; to scuba divers retrieving trash from the bottom of the ocean. This daisy chain around the world renders our responsibility and interconnectedness inescapable, but whether the film represents a call to action or presages the coming apocalypse is left for each of us to decide.