«Garbage has never really disappeared.»

Garbage-free zones no longer exist on this planet. In MATTER OUT OF PLACE Nikolaus Geyrhalter makes this abundantly clear, also stressing that despite huge efforts to place it out of sight, garbage cannot be eliminated.
The title of your film, MATTER OUT OF PLACE, refers to a definition. What is meant by this term?
We took the expression from Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada Desert where we also filmed. Everything that is left there after the festival – not just garbage but everything that is not "native to the environment" and was not there before – is described as matter out of place. Everything that people have brought, that doesn’t belong there and has to be removed again. This is the origin of the term mooping, the meticulous cleaning after the event which is part of the DNA of Burning Man and which forms the end of the film. I think it is a beautiful description that carries the thought further, beyond the concrete concept of garbage, to encompass everything that would not be there or be changed without us. We humans have created a gigantic amount of matter out of place.
In one of the first sequences, an excavator eats its way into an undeveloped meadow. I can see a connection to your previous film EARTH: It suggests initially that a construction project is under way, until it emerges that what is being excavated here is not soil but the contents of a landfill that have accumulated over decades. How were you able to be there with a film camera?
Some topics continue to engage us. In Solothurn, where we shot that sequence, several test excavations were performed with a view to decontaminating the landfill site, and we shot the last of them. From today's perspective it is essential to clean up this garbage dump from the seventies. But how will future generations assess the landfills or processes that are currently state of the art? If I've learned anything from this film, and especially this segment, it's that garbage never really disappears. Even if it is incinerated it leaves a pile of slag which is deposited somewhere and will perhaps have to be dug up again by generations to come. I don’t only mean that waste material hasn’t been disposed of properly; it’s also possible, with increasingly efficient technologies, to filter out recyclable materials. Old landfills contain not only environmental hazards but also potential for recycling.
Did your research also confront you with the history of dealing with garbage?
Garbage is a symbol of how humanity is developing, and this development is far slower than technological progress requires. We cannot yet deal with many things that are possible and commonplace today. Suddenly throwing trash out the window and waiting for it to rot doesn't work anymore. But we haven’t yet come much further. First, we have to internalize the fact that every piece of garbage we currently create must be disposed of as sensibly as possible. We haven’t yet taken that evolutionary step.
How did you choose your locations?
In this film the role of chance in the selection of locations was far from insignificant; we were thwarted by Corona again and again. We had a lot of plans before the first lockdown that couldn't then be carried through due to pandemic-related travel and entry regulations. So in order to cover certain topics, we switched to other countries we hadn’t originally had on the list. One example is the large landfill in Nepal; we knew it existed, but we only managed to secure a visa to work there during a peak phase of Corona. In fact, the place gave us very useful material. We discovered a lot because we couldn’t fall back on familiar locations and had to find new places ourselves.
Was your focus on the size of the landfill or rather the way the waste was handled?
It was on both: of course, we were interested in different ways of treating garbage but also in people’s desperation to deal with it. The existence of a huge, archaic landfill was just as clear as a modern waste incineration plant. There are many other aspects in between, and we allowed ourselves to explore the connections quite freely in the film. There are already films that deal with the topic of waste objectively and argumentatively. It was obvious that our project couldn’t do that. If you get involved in searching and finding, much more can appear.
Was it possible at a filming location like Nepal to take the time to observe the effort and the enormous dimension of the landfill?
There was time, but as always, not very much of it. The shoot was very well prepared; we knew the location manager in Nepal well, because we had previously worked together on another film. We had received pictures of the landfill in advance, and the rickshaw driver was already arranged; the surprising part of this shoot was the rain, which was so heavy that the landfill was hardly navigable. These images lead the film to one of its core themes: the enormous hardship involved, for man and machine, in the removal of waste.
You feature a group of people cleaning a beach in Albania and divers in Greece, examples where citizens are voluntarily taking waste disposal into their own hands. Is it also a theme of the film to show how much such private initiative are needed, because the public sector alone isn’t coping with the amount of waste?
We don’t try to address the question of who should solve the waste problem. But it is a shared responsibility for us all. It is a fact that garbage can be found everywhere, in large quantities. It is also known that it accumulates in the ocean. Our aim was to create awareness by depicting this participation. There are many voluntary initiatives; they work more or less professionally and always with enthusiasm. The ocean is the place where garbage accumulates most inconspicuously, so we worked on these underwater shots for a long time. Here too there are volunteers at work, doing their best to clean the seabed. Because much of the plastic that ends up in the countryside sooner or later finds its way down the rivers into the sea. It sinks there, so it’s out of sight, which is why the shots of the bottom of the sea were so important for the film.
Long shots have always characterized your films. In some cases, from a subjective perspective, they seem to be maintained for longer than usual here. Does this approach also refer to the time-scale involved, which is virtually infinite, when we confront the issue of garbage?
There are a few unusually long shots, because during filming it turned out that they constantly evolved and created a dynamic we didn’t want to curtail. In those cases we decided to let them play out full length, because they contain a number of surprises as a plan sequence. And of course also because waste management is an eternal process... so it must be possible to accept a sequence like that, lasting a few minutes.
But apart from that, the editing rhythm is similar to my other films. My way of shooting images does entail some slow breathing.
The film also shows in a very physical way how strenuous and dangerous working in waste management is.
There are many things that we like to hide.
Even in our latitudes there is a lot of manual work involved in waste processing. When we throw something into the yellow plastic container in Vienna, it is taken by truck to Graz and partially sorted by hand. You can't imagine how many truck drivers there are who transport garbage, and when they open the back of the trailer, the garbage dumps on them. Or what logistics are required for the garbage to be incinerated or sorted or otherwise processed. At best, we throw our crap into separate garbage containers and think that's it. In reality, it sets unimaginable machinery in motion, which also leaves behind a massive CO2 footprint. Recycling processes also require immense energy. Avoidance is always the best solution.
You mentioned the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert at the beginning. MATTER OUT OF PLACE ends with impressive, sometimes almost surreal images of that. How did this event come to be part of the film?
It is part of the festival's ethos that a completely clean desert is left behind, and it has to be that way due to official regulations. Interestingly enough, we started shooting there – and that was a stroke of luck, because Burning Man hasn't taken place since then due to Corona. I don't think you'll find anyone who can describe exactly what Burning Man really is. I would call it an event rather than a festival. It is a gathering of many people in the desert, and at the end the sculpture of a man created by an artist is ritually burned. Participants have to bring everything for their personal needs, be nice to other people, help out if necessary and not leave any crap behind. Express yourself is the motto; everyone can feel like an artist, put an art installation in place and dismantle it again.  Burning Man stands for an alternative America, where the mood of Yes, we can resonates. There is no money in circulation because you can't buy anything, there is no phone reception and no cars. Bikes are the only means of transport. For a week you are dependent on yourself and others. Leave no trace really is the motto, and people stick to it. It’s absolutely amazing how clean the desert is left at the end.
Did working on this film make you more pessimistic?
No. I try to be realistic. Pessimism isn’t a solution either. When you confront a topic, you have to go through with it. And on the basis of the research, you know roughly what to expect. The filming didn't bring any big surprises. The film has essentially turned out as the research suggested. There is garbage everywhere. And thank God there are people working on improving the situation, though it's pretty hopeless. That is the short version. But that alone is not enough to make me despair. It's something you have to keep working on, keep pushing yourself. I'm not a role model either. The possibilities for action are limited. If you don't want to spend a large part of your life energy on living garbage-free, then it's not so easy.
The completely absurd thing now, when we may not have enough gas for the coming winter, is that we’ll be happy about waste that can be converted into a little energy in incineration plants.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
July 2022

Translation: Charles Osborne