Speaking to Business Doc Europe, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, director of Our Daily Bread and Homo Sapiens and one of the heavyweight auteurs of European documentary, has revealed details of his new corona-virus themed feature doc, The Standstill (sold by Autlook).
The film is being produced by Michael Kitzberger, Markus Glaser, Wolfgang Widerhofer, and Geyrhalter through the director’s company NGF.
“It just happened,” Geyrhalter says of how he suddenly decided to make the film shortly after the pandemic took hold. “Nobody really understands the dimension of what is going on right now and also nobody really thinks of documenting it. I don’t know how it is in England, but in Austria and in Europe all the journalists stayed at home. On TV, they made interviews only by Skype.”
Realising that there “might be no imagery of this crisis,” the director set out onto the streets to shoot. He had his journalistic credentials which allowed him to leave home.
“At the beginning, I was fascinated by all these empty places and spaces,” Geyrhalter says of how previously seething urban settings were now deserted. He was startled too at the fragility of society. “It was if somebody had just turned off the switch,” he notes of how abruptly normal life stopped.
“In some ways, it was spooky,” the director says of his experiences shooting during the height of the pandemic. He was fascinated by the government’s response to the crisis, for example flying in thousands of masks from Asia at a time when the airports were otherwise completely locked down.
“We just tried to film whatever was different – and everything was different.”
At first, Geyrhalter had no idea how the film would be structured. “The only idea that I had was, OK, it’s very important to catch this immediate footage that would be impossible to catch later on.”
The director cleaned his equipment constantly. “In some ways, I felt quite privileged being allowed to be out because I know many people had a hard time not being able to leave their homes except for good reasons. I think we had a good reason!”
The only other people he tended to encounter were police officers or other officials. His interviews were shot without masks – but with the subjects at a safe distance from the camera. However, some footage was shot in the intensive care units of hospitals – so hygiene and safety were of paramount importance there.
“I wasn’t too afraid of this virus because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Geyrhalter’s plan now is to shoot again in the winter with some of the people he met during the lockdown. He hopes his documentary will chronicle ways in which society has been changed. He envisages that he will complete the project early next year – although that may change, of course, if there is a second wave of the disease.
The urgency to film was so urgent that Geyrhalter had no time to sort out any financing. Instead, the project was self-funded. “Sometimes you just have to react. It should be no problem to finance it now. It’s kind of a unique project so I think it should work,” he says of the film, details of which are being presented as part of a speed meeting event, “Four From Austria,” during the Cannes Virtual Marché today, 23 June.
At the time he started The Standstill, Geyrhalter was working on two other projects. One was his documentary about plastic waste around the world. Another was about climate change and “all the cold places in the world.” He had just been preparing to go to the North Pole. Instead, he found himself working on his strangest project yet, very close to home.
One insight the pandemic has given the director is how quickly an entire society’s behaviour changed. “At a pretty early stage, there was a complete lockdown of everything…what surprised me was how easy it was to shut down the whole country. You just need to talk to the people and give them a good reason and they will give up anything. If you look at this from a historical perspective, it is kind of spooky. It explains how a lot of things were possible during The Second World War….it (the lockdown) was OK because the result was good in the end, but still it was a very spooky experience.”