7915 km (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria), with minimal irony, likens a motocross rally track to a modern Silk Road. The suggestion is just too intriguing: this post-modern Silk Road evacuates the original’s utility and large-scale communal definition (as numerous cultures, nations, and peoples variously contributed to its value, its identity, and its legend), and replaces it with an arbitrary “use” as a playground for international racing. The rally course, like the Silk Road, still spreads and crosses cultures, but now that spread is unidirectional. 7215 km seeing the “road” as a one way intrusion bringing Western Europe to Africa and, at least until the film’s brilliant final evocation of the homegrown inspiration to emigrate from Senegal, no travel of people or ideas goes the other way, from the very location of the rally track in Africa to the homes of its Western users.
Yet, with such an unexpected analogy, Geyrhalter’s film suffers from the same problem that plagued his previous documentary, Our Daily Bread—while the filmmaker’s widescreen tableaux are sometimes visually poignant, Geyrhalter’s documentary imagination is lacking. The subjects—the residents who live around the track the rally racers user—and their interviews are more often than not purely perfunctory. You could guess what the film contains just by being told its subject, which robs its unfolding of most of its power and insight—clearly its conclusions are set-up before filming even started.
This is not to say the film is empty. Indeed, its lengthy redundancy and obviousness makes its occasional inspirations practically startling. Coming before so many banal comments about the intrusion of the West in general, a young desert-dweller’s frustration at the drivers believing the accuracy of their GPS systems over local advice on a shorter route nails exactly what Geyrhalter is driving at: the rally course, its users, its effects, and its victims as an analogy—but a very real one—to both an attitude and a process of Western globalization. But once the film actually moves away from the track, both literally by avoiding it and also by pursuing other lines of questioning, 7215 km simply takes the form of yet another generic film on the effect of Western encroachment in Africa.
In between this redundant tedium are jewels: the film’s frequent, unsettlingly quiet return to massive landscape shots of the rally track, empty except for the criss-crossing tire marks in the dust and dirt, each shot a hint of a James Benning work toiling away inside Geyhalter’s film (that Benning’s magnificent RR is also playing in Toronto tantalizingly hints at one direction of political and phenomenological landscaping 7215 km could have pursued). The aesthetic stiffness of the film's unmoving camera makes its the unadventurous study even more uninvolving; when Geyrhalter finally pushes into space, as in shots where he bolts the camera to military trucks or a train traveling near the race track, or, even better, towards the end where the film’s first handheld camera following a local girl tour her village and talk about her family in France, the film starts to come alive. Indeed, the film clearly gets more fascinating as it takes greater formal risks to ask questions cinematically about its subject, be it scoping the epic landscape, finally entering into the talbeaux, or, in the tour-de-force final sequence, upend the idea of solitary Westerners driving along a route in the middle of nowhere for fun, by filling the screen with live-feed air force surveillance footage of Senegalese packed together on illegal boats trying to navigate stealthily to Europe.