Presented as part of the RIDM festival, the film examines architecture and space
Rarely can a filmmaker successfully tell a story without using any actors, dialogue or text. Yet, Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter has taken on that challenge in his thought-provoking documentary, Homo Sapiens. The film tells humanity’s story through a series of images showing structures we have built and objects we have manufactured.
The beautifully shot documentary can arguably be described as more of an art film, as it requires audiences to surrender their minds and contemplate the meaning behind the images on screen.
Images of a McDonald’s restaurant, coupled with ones of a food processing plant strewn with decomposed animal carcasses, tell the story of a race that chose to industrialize food production. In order to produce cheap, ‘fast food’ for the masses, large numbers of animals need to be packed together to increase production.
An image of a landfill tells the story of a race that polluted its habitats by producing large amounts of waste to serve its consumer culture. Images of a library, a hospital and computer servers show a species that took the time to learn and invent better ways to communicate, heal and technologically evolve. The Image of a prison shows a vengeful race that chose to punish those who didn’t adhere to society’s laws.
Images of a tank, missiles and a battleship demonstrate an aggressive race that is at war, both for survival and domination over the other. Images of a satellite show a curious species that looked to the stars to understand where they come from and discern whether they are alone in the universe.
Telling the story of humanity without using a single human being is a genuinely interesting experiment in storytelling. The genius of Homo Sapiens is that the images may not be interpreted the same way by individual audience members. For instance, when presented with images of a McDonald’s restaurant, will you think of a greedy corporation, of animal cruelty or of a delicious burger? When looking at images of a prison, will you think of justice being served or will you consider an exploited workforce that manufactures items for little to no pay? The infinite interpretations presents audience members with a meditative, introspective and unique movie-going experience—one rarely provided by the film industry.
That being said, a possible flaw with this piece of artistic expression could be the medium in which it is presented. By choosing to make a feature-length documentary, it is the filmmaker who determines the length of time audience members will be presented with each image and the total length of time audiences will spend at this cinematic ‘exhibition.’ The problem is that we don’t all experience artwork in the same way. When attending a museum exhibition, for instance, some people may choose to spend two minutes contemplating a piece of artistic expression, while others may spend 20 minutes. In the case of Homo Sapiens, many audience members to leave the theatre before the film was over. While Geyrhalter’s work may have been better suited for the halls of a museum than the big screen, the film is still an experience worth having.
Homo Sapiens was screened as part of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) on Nov. 20.