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7915 KM (2008), which follows in the path of an off-road race through northwest Africa, and the four-hour Elsewhere, in which Geyrhalter and crew visit one remote location a month during the last year of the 20th century, take up similar concerns of changing ways of life, though on a much larger geographical scale. The two films contain indelible images—7915 KM marks each new stop along the way with a static long shot of vehicle tracks imprinted in the desert, like the furrows of a dried-up creek bed, a suggestion as well of the ugly and deep European mark left on the continent over the centuries—but are hampered by their projects’ inherent time limitations, a matter of days in each location not being enough to produce much more than a thumbnail sketch of life there. It must be said, though, that 7915 KM, which for most of its running time favors striking African landscapes over substantive cultural insight, concludes with a devastating series of shots that efficiently articulates the simple double standard hinted at throughout—that the mostly European participants in the Dakar Rally blaze recklessly through several African nations without thought, while their governments back home strive to keep boats packed with Senegalese from even making landfall.
The biggest find of the series, though, is 1999’s Pripyat, for which Geyrhalter enters Chernobyl’s evacuated zone a dozen or so years after the meltdown of Unit 4, finding signs of life in and around the titular worker city-turned-ghost town. As low-grade frightening as might be expected, the black-and-white documentary is even more stunningly weird: locations include a vehicle depot packed with contaminated trucks and helicopters and a soccer stadium, now completely overgrown, where the reactor crew once took on the turbine crew. Residents tell stories of thieves who steal past military barricades in the night to ransack abandoned buildings. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the prevailing attitude toward radionuclides, but Geyrhalter’s subjects—save for one good-humored “autonomous returnee” who likens the area to a nature preserve—are understandably more distraught over the decaying of their hometown. The evidence in this retro-thus-far suggests Geyrhalter, who turns 38 this year, makes more striking and affecting films when he hunkers down in one place (Dayton, Pripyat) and zeroes in on the human inability to accept, even fully comprehend, irrevocably altered surroundings; heartening, then, to see the next addition to his largely impressive body of work focuses on a bankrupt Lower Austrian textile factory.