Over an incredibly speedy four hours of unspooling, “Elsewhere” goes everywhere the viewer has likely never been on the planet. Doc, lensed by peripatetic Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter in 12 remote locations in each of the 12 months of the year 2000, brilliantly functions as both a survey of how tribal peoples today function between tradition and modernity and as a fabulous armchair adventure. Though an indelible watching experience at uninterrupted length, opus can be easily split in parts (each one clocking at around 20 minutes) for broadcast it richly deserves on worldwide tubes.
Shooting involved a pre-production schedule starting in August 1998 requiring a massive support group of researchers, translators (involving several lingos rarely if ever heard onscreen), coordinators and prep in each of the dozen locales. To add complications on top of complications, Geyrhalter came down ill after March 2000 lensing in Namibia, but since production could not stop, his assistants took the helm until he soon returned.
Notably, all of these travails are absolutely invisible onscreen, which is generally filled with superbly composed medium, slightly wide-angle shots of indigenous people surviving and sometimes thriving under conditions that those in tech-laden urban centers would shun. Steadfastly refusing to impose his outsider’s commentary on what is seen, Geyrhalter has each person describe in his own words (and frequently in direct-address) what his life is like.
Tribal camel breeders in Ekeschi, Nigeria, have the whole family pitch in on their back-breaking work, but some express mounting concerns about the desertified bush being able to continue to support them. Lonely reindeer hunter Hans Kitti can travel miles on his snowmobile in Finland’s northernmost region without seeing another living being. Multiple marriages seem to be the rule in Kapyarukoro Tjambiru’s Namibia desert home, where he and his two wives offer accounts of how they try to balance labor and emotions. “How to Make a Giant Treehouse” could be title of fourth section on Indonesia’s island of Irian Jaya, where men build an abode high in the treetops.
Seal hunters in Greenland defend their practice, and one blames no less than Brigitte Bardot for campaigning for eco-restrictions on such hunting. Inching toward an uneasy truce with Western influences, Aboriginal mothers in Oz outback village of Manmoyi are seen quietly spending their days with their babies as older kids play Nintendo and dance to ancient music. Strong and independent Tsewang Dolma sustains a full life, though it requires sending her cow herd up to remote northern Indian grasslands that look like the top of the world. Siberian reindeer breeder Josif Kechimov appears bitter at his subsistence life with his family on the wooded tundra plain, badly encroached upon by oil companies he despises but must depend on.
Another woman in charge is Gao ru qi du, 87-year-old matriarch of a home in China’s Yunan province, who seems happy that men are fairly scarce. Sardinian father-and-son fishermen Luigi and Gaetano Garau are closest to anything like a Westernized lifestyle, but theirs is an extremely dangerous livelihood that brings little visible satisfaction.
Nisga’a tribesmen in northern British Columbia speak in English about the art of totem pole building, while elders fret over their tribe’s depleted fisheries. Adventure ends on sad note in Micronesia at Christmastime, when tribespeople on Woleai Atoll wait for a gift drop care of the Red Cross that turns out to be mostly junk.
Cumulative effect is extraordinary, offering a refreshed view of how people live and raise families with little technological aid, yet with increasing dependency on the modern, outside world. Image (in very fine hi-def video transferred to film) and sound are world-class.