|'You'll find thoughts being continuously provoked within your mind as Homo Sapiens quietly unfolds in front of you like a cinematic screensaver'.|
Describing Homo Sapiens as a documentary feels at least partly misleading. Whilst it certainly provides a document of the places it depicts, it does so with no voiceover, no talking heads and no camera movement. Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter even makes the choice not to include captions describing the location of each of the spaces he shoots.
In one sense the title is ironic, in that no human beings are either seen or heard at any point in Homo Sapiens. What the director presents instead are images of spaces created by people which have since been abandoned. Most are modern - offices, hospitals, theme parks - whilst a handful are considerably older. Some have clearly been deserted for many years, others perhaps only two or three. Whilst a number remain as eerie ghost towns, nature has begun reclaiming quite a few others.
Geyrhalter's unconventional style may sound bewildering, and at times it is, but that is part of the uncanny appeal of his film. Each place is presented through a series of still camera shots lasting between twenty and thirty seconds each with only diegetic sound included, making Homo Sapiens feel more akin to an art installation than a documentary at times. Covering so many locations means that inevitably some will be less engaging than others, but for every one that has less to offer there are at least four or five more that prove fascinating. Geyrhalter also has a wonderful eye for photography meaning that, whether it piques your curiosity or not, there's no denying that each location is beautifully captured.
The director's choice to limit the information he includes means that each place is presented purely without the intrusion of text or additional sound. As a result, you'll find thoughts being continuously provoked within your mind as Homo Sapiens quietly unfolds in front of you like a cinematic screensaver. At times the world as presented in the film feels like the setting for a post-apocalyptic drama - until you remind yourself once again that these are all places that actually exist somewhere on the planet whilst you're watching. The placelessness of the locations works well too: whilst a few can be tied to specific parts of the world through language or cultural indicators, many have a profoundly universal feel thanks to Geyhalter's deliberate acontextuality; others still feel curiously alien without knowledge of their purpose before they became abandoned.
Geyrhalter's greatest achievement, however, is prompting his audience to reflect on humanity's legacy without ever feeling sanctimonious. What do these places say about our priorities? Which should fill us with pride, with awe, with horror or shame? Perhaps most pertinently of all, with so many parts of the world used and discarded as shown here, what do we need to change about our attitude to our planet as the amount of human beings grows ever greater? With that in mind, the film's title takes on a fresh irony: Homo Sapiens may translate into English as "wise man", but just how wise do the places Geyrhalter offers for our consideration make the human race look?
The 30th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 3rd-17th November 2016 at thirty venues across the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.