Washed Ashore, 1994. An elderly cemetery caretaker, Josef Fuchs, impassively looks out into the Danube River before turning to face the camera and reciting Count Albrecht Graf Wickenburg’s requiem for the namenlos – the unidentified dead, often people who committed suicide or lost their lives in boating accidents, whose bodies have washed up along the riverbank over the years and were buried at the Cemetery of the Nameless in lower Austria near the city limits of Vienna. In another area along the Danube River, a military guard stands atop an outpost scanning the landscape amidst the rumble of a hydroelectric plant overlooking a pedestrian bridge as vehicles speed past across a road on the opposite side of the river. In still other images of the Danube itself, a floating, ceremonial casket covered with flowers drifts aimlessly with the current towards its indeterminate place of rest, and a lone angler watches the tranquil waters for signs of activity as he rows his boat along the river in search of an ideal fishing spot. These introductory parallel images of disparate, yet intrinsically connected river sentinels along the Danube provides the framework for Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s evocative and understated stream of consciousness rumination, Washed Ashore, an interweaving elegy on ritual and obsolescence set against the eternal, yet indelibly transforming modern day, socioeconomic landscape of the river in the face of encroaching urbanization, a collapsed Soviet bloc economy, and globalization.
This paradoxical coexistence of construction and erosion, activity and decline that characterizes contemporary life along the Danube is initially reflected through Fuchs’s own testimony of his evolving role in the cemetery since the site’s incorporation into the city of Vienna during the early half of the twentieth century. Decades earlier, during the final years of regional autonomy from Viennese jurisdiction when the laws still permitted people to trawl bodies found floating on the river, he had retrieved as many as fifty unclaimed corpses for burial. Now prohibited by the district charter from recovering the dead from the river (a phenomenon that would also be mitigated by the implemented diversion of the river, perhaps to feed the hydroelectric plant and prevent soil erosion that will accommodate new construction along the riverbank), the aging Fuchs now single-handedly tends to the care and maintenance of the existing (and now largely representational) anonymous graves, often faced with exhausting responsibilities of controlling overgrown foliage, grounds keeping, and even repairing markers and placards that have been defaced by thrill-seeking vandals and souvenir hunters from the gravesites. A similar sentiment of a dying way of life is intimated in the fisherman’s explanation of the local community’s opposition to the assimilation of the area’s natural attractions into a proposed national park, arguing that such a project would not only open the floodgates to large-scale tourism that will adversely affect the area’s already fragile ecological balance, but also, as a consequence, lead to the imposition of even more stringent regulations that will threaten their very livelihood.
However, the vulnerability of integral economies enabled by the river cannot be not solely attributed to the problems of (over) development, as illustrated by the middle-aged husband and wife team of barge operators from Romania, Aurel and Helene Rotaru, who live modestly aboard their company-supplied boat transporting industrial goods and raw materials bound for harbors along the Danube throughout Europe. Nearing retirement, the couple sees their lifelong career as a dying vocation, as younger generations, raised in an age of modern conveniences and discotheques, are unable to adapt to the more old fashioned (and decidedly low tech) lifestyle demanded by their nomadic occupation. This sense of self-imposed simplicity and asceticism is perhaps best illustrated by Gyosei Masunaga, a Buddhist monk who, years earlier, heeded the teachings of his mentor and left Japan to establish a peace pagoda and temple in Vienna in order to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now leads a humble life of devotion and subsistence near the riverbank. Closing with the rhapsodic performance of an untranslated traditional folksong by a traveling musician (Polina Schestova), her soulful performance serves as an idiosyncratically fitting coda to Geyrhalter’s organic symphony on the enduring mutability of life along the margins of the Danube itself – at once, exotic and familiar, somber and rapturous, distant and transcendable.
Elsewhere, 2001. In 2000, the final year of the twentieth century, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his crew set out with a digital video camera to film twelve, self-contained ethnographic episodes, each encapsulating a month-long document of the lives of people who perform their quotidian rituals in a figurative “elsewhere” – distant cultures and remote geographies seemingly left untouched – or perhaps, more appropriately, left behind – by a ubiquitous, untenable West, unaffected by the media-cultivated sensationalism (and crass commercialism) surrounding the advent of the new millennium. Opening to Ekeschi, Ayr at the heart of the Sahara desert in Niger in January, the image of the parched, sun bathed landscape on what is traditionally winter season in the West incisively underscores this sense of alterity and exoticism that the film subsequently subverts in its quiet observation, absence of mediating narration, stationary frame, long take sequences, and first person direct address. Chronicling life among the nomadic Tuareg as a woman and her child retrieve water from a deeply dug well (with the aid of a donkey that must travel a span of nearly 300 meters before the pail of water surfaces from the opposite end of the rope), men herd their camels through the barren landscape, and a tribesman comments on the lure of the cities for the younger generation and his concerns over the ability of the land to continue to support their ancestral way of life under a climate of overpopulation and land development. But perhaps the most insightful portrait of the Tuareg is revealed in the mundane gesture of a traditional, extended handshake that contradicts the notion of a casual greeting implied by its Western counterpart, emphasizing the act of the tactile, interactive human contact that reinforces a sense of communal intimacy and solidarity.
The repercussions of overpopulation and uncontrolled growth subsequently resurfaces in the portrait of the Moso tribe, a matriarchal, ethnic minority community of farmers and ranchers living in the Yunnan province in China, as an extended family tends to their farm. Addressing a recurring comment by the Han Chinese (the majority tribe) towards the Moso tribe’s resistance to marrying as a means of leaving the ancestral home and establishing a new household (and familial independence), a woman argues that the family’s (and by extension, the tribe’s) longevity is enabled by their clan’s collective work ethic, a mutual consideration that regards the land as an ancestral stewardship to be passed on to future generations, and not as personal property to be divided (and subsequently, further subdivided) among heirs and future generations as inheritance (a process that inevitably leads to the fragmentation of the land into unusable plots for farming). The idiosyncrasies of tribal notions of inheritance and (dis)possession also unexpectedly surfaces during a discussion of polygamy by Himba tribespeople in Kaokoland, Namibia as the co-wives of a village elder (and regional administrative judge) recount their own stories of courtship and inclusion into the family (even as they express disapproval over the idea of their husband marrying a third co-wife), and the elder explains the traditional disbursement of property upon his death that not includes his designated heir’s customary accession, but also the assumption of marriage for his wives.
However, beyond the exposure of social inequities intrinsic in patriarchal societies, perhaps the most salient and integral observation that emerges throughout the film is the overarching idea of the complex interaction – and often forcibly imposed imprint – of external forces on these eternal, yet gradually transforming landscapes. Although at times, a simple reflection of the inevitable forces of nature (as in a reindeer herder’s discovery of the headless carcass of an errant reindeer that had been killed by a wolf in Samiland, Finland near the Norwegian border), the film becomes an increasingly incisive exposition into the indirect repercussions of man-made legacy on indigenous identity. On one side of the equation, the institution of “witch villages” by the West has contributed to the eradication of cannibalism among the Korowai people of Irian Jaya, Indonesia where, only a few generations earlier, those denounced as sorcerers were killed and ceremonially eaten by their accusers. Similarly, in Arnhem Land, Australia, a Western doctor conducts routine visits to the remote Aboriginal Reserve in order to tend to the sick and monitor the health of the local population, especially the children (note the sustained paradoxical sense of geographic remoteness that is subverted in the subsequent images of children playing European football and video games near the end of the segment). In Umla, Ladakh, India, the imprint transcends from the physical to the spiritual, as a Ladhaki rancher and sheepherder reflects on her life of grace and blessing, alternating her time between grazing the animals at higher mountain elevations and immersed in Buddhist prayer, even as she expresses her trepidation over the plight of the tribe’s younger generations in an environment of systematic depopulation, limited opportunity, and increasing isolation from other countries (and in particular, their spiritual brethren in Tibet as China tightens its border controls).
The murky, often tenuous and uneasy intersection between the imposition of Western ideology and the integral symbiotic relationship between environmental responsibility and cultural survival first surfaces in an episode on Inuit sea hunters in Thule, Greenland who, while acknowledging the cruelty of the now-discontinued practice of hunting baby seals, believe that protests by high profile celebrities (in particular, Brigitte Bardot) and environmentalist groups have gone too far in their attacks on the tribe’s ancestral vocation of whale and seal hunting and now threatens, not only their livelihood, but the very survival of their cultural identity. Conversely, the specter of man-made (often corporate-based) ecological irresponsibility looms inescapably over the few remaining Khanty herdsmen in the village of Kantek Ko Jawun in Siberia, Russia, as fish and wildlife have dwindled to the point of near extinction as a result of repeated oil spills and industrial pollution associated with the pipelines, even as the oil company attempts to improve its public relations image towards the local population by offering free helicopter rides for running errands into faraway towns. A similar ecological crisis looms in the village of Thárros in Sardinia, Italy as regional over-fishing is leading generational fishermen into taking riskier trips with their boats into ever deeper waters in search of “beautiful” fish like pagello, gilthead, and grouper that are in high demand by the restaurant industry, leading an elder fisherman to remark that “only poor people eat ugly fish.” In New Aiyansh, British Columbia in Canada, the exuberance over the Nisga’a tribe’s ceremonial dedication of a totem pole in the town square contrasts against a tribesman’s frustration and anger at the government’s empty, symbolic gesture of atonement in returning a parcel of desecrated tribal land that had been appropriated, exploited, and entirely deforested by industrial loggers. This insidious image of implicit domination and cultural imperialism under the feigned guise of goodwill is subsequently illustrated in the Red Cross’ biennial Christmas package drops to the Falalap, Woleai Atoll in Micronesia, the film’s final destination, where the tribe sifts though a collection of well-worn clothing and assorted trash in the hopes of finding something of practical use. It is through this interlocking, artificially imposed social framework of privilege and marginalization, inclusion and otherness, “civilized society” and elsewhere that a Rei Metau teacher’s expressed fears on the devastating, secondary effects of melting polar ice caps on the low lying islands of Micronesia serve, not only as a provocative reminder of the earth’s ecological interconnectedness, but also as a poignant and incisive expression of a forgotten people’s sense of place in an increasingly alienating and myopic global environment – the residual imprint, not of the dawning of a new era, but its casted twilight.
Acquarello, 2007 [reprinted]