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Paloma de Papel (Paper Dove)

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Elsewhere is a four-hour collection of 12 short documentaries. Each segment was shot during a different month of the year 2000. February’s was shot with the Sami people of northern Finland; July’s was shot in India, somewhere near the Himalayas; and so on.

Talking Heads and Landscapes

A Touareg man takes you Elsewhere
A Touareg man takes you Elsewhere

The interviews are na├»ve, which I say descriptively and not judgmentally. Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter often plants the camera and lets the subjects sum up their lives as they best see fit. The interview subjects seem to know who their audience is and tailor their answer to the people of Austria (or Western Europe) — indigenous people in Greenland and British Columbia rail against Greenpeace and logging corporations, respectively, sensing that they’ll get some knowing sympathy from a Western audience. Others explain what life is like in a sparsely populated remote settlement, sensing that what Westerners will be interested in is how it’s different from theirs. Geyrhalter doesn’t make any statements through editing, and none of the subjects dig very deep.

Geyrhalter’s strength is video photography. Cross-cut with the interviews are gorgeous, richly colored shots of the landscapes and the pace of life. People hunt, build, harvest, teach, work, and shop. My first reaction was disappointment that the footage wasn’t shot on film. But my lasting impression is amazement at how good the high-definition video looks, especially considering that it’s now more than ten years old.

Pace of Life

In the scenes of everyday life there are no thrills; there are no interpersonal dramas or passion. Apparently, most of the time people sail on an even keel. For some audiences, this might equate to “boring.” And I would agree that four hours in a single sitting seems to be too much (I watched Elsewhere in two settings). There is no overall arc. Each 20-minute segment is self-contained. You can watch a few at a time and it doesn’t matter where you stop. I’d have preferred a longer work that demanded more attention and drew some conclusions, but Elsewhere is more hands-off.

Each segment is interesting in its own right, but there are also islands of insight that jump out. A woman in Micronesia wearing only a skirt, and skillfully shaving a root with a machete says she had no concept of “trash” until she realized the biannual Christmas Drop of clothes and toys from the Red Cross was just other people’s unwanted junk. Behind her head in another interview you can see a giant inflatable cigarette hanging from her ceiling.

In the segment on Indonesia, a shy, slight man talks about his family cutting up and eating an enemy. The story is so at odds with the innocent-looking man that you almost wonder whether he’s telling the camera what he thinks it wants to hear. Then there is one of Geyrhalter’s cuts on black that indicates a new take, and the man clarifies that this cannibalism happened in his grandmother’s time, and that nobody has eaten anybody else for generations.

Where is Elsewhere?

The word “elsewhere” implies a perspective on the part of the speaker. “Elsewhere” is not a neutral term. It implies there is an “I” who is “here” and not over there where “elsewhere” is. Did Geyrhalter attribute the fixed first-person position to himself, or to his Austrian audience? Does it matter?

I found myself wondering what qualified as that other “elsewhere” — is it geography? Or economics? I assumed it was geography at first, but there are segments set in Finland and Italy. Then again, they aren’t set in Helsinki and Rome but rather the northernmost part of Finland and with the struggling fishermen on Sardinia.

Maybe “elsewhere” is defined by poverty. Maybe it’s defined by remoteness. Or maybe it’s just wherever Geyrhalter could get plane tickets.

DVD Extras

Not on this set.

Picture and Sound

Picture quality is excellent. My first thought when I saw the first shot was disappointment that the footage was shot on video and not film. But the quality of the HD video is surprisingly good, especially when you consider the year was 2000.

Sound quality is good, too, which is quite an accomplishment considering some of the adverse conditions under which the footage was taped.

How to Use This DVD

Split it up into two or more nights. Each segment is a predictable 20 minutes, so allot the right amount of time.