Shine a Light: Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness


By Michael Sicinski

With its very title, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a film that announces itself as being in league with forces not entirely of this world. Nevertheless, its makers are two of the leading lights of contemporary experimental cinema precisely because of their pellucid examination of the world around them. Recently Ben Rivers has gotten the wider attention he has long deserved thanks to his 2011 feature Two Years at Sea, an extended portrait of off-the-grid Brit Jake Williams. Williams, like so many of Rivers’ subjects, has opted out of postmodern capitalism in favour of a private, artisanal existence. Ben Russell, who like Rivers has worked in both features (2009’s Let Each One Go Where He May) and the short form, is an inveterate globalist, having made films throughout the Americas, the Middle East, the South Pacific, and Europe. Russell and Rivers share an engagement with the history of ethnographic film, but only inasmuch as the critiques of its shortcomings and power relations have been fully internalized.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness finds their styles melding in the most fascinating ways. There has been a more reserved attitude in many of Rivers’ films, a desire to hang back with patient curiosity, which is distinct from Russell’s more agitated approach. What’s more, Russell’s films have often favoured group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies. One man (artist-musician Robert AA Lowe) is observed in three distinct situations: first, he participates in a commune on the island of Vormsi, Estonia; he then carves out an existence all alone in the Finnish wilderness; finally, he joins other musicians (Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy, Nicholas McMaster of Krallice, and Weasal Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers) as the frontman of a Black Metal band. The resulting film is a triptych fully reflective of Rivers’ and Russell’s longtime concerns: how does one remain a part of society while carving out a space that is, in Heidegger’s terms, true to one’s ownmost possibility?

Cinema Scope: How did this project come about? Had you known ahead of time that you wanted a triptych, or to zero in on a single performer observed in different scenarios?

Ben Rivers: Ben and I have been friends now for many years, and in 2009 toured with a program of our films called We Cannot Exist In This World Alone. The program explored the overlapping themes in our work, and instigated discussion about making something together. Our films are formally pretty different, so it seemed like an exciting idea to push each other out of our ways of working. In the earliest stages we talked about the sublime, and what it means to live within that kind of landscape. We were particularly interested in Norway, as a landscape of out-of-control beauty that spawned Black Metal and Viking re-enactors. What is it about this landscape that encourages a desire to revisit pre-Christian pagan ways of being?

From here we thought about a character who might be searching for different ways of existing in this sublime landscape, and quickly decided upon the three-part structure of COMMUNE, SOLITUDE, and BLACK METAL, and we imagined these things happening in any order. There wasn’t an answer or hierarchy among these attempts at achieving some kind of utopian moment. We already had the title, so we knew we were also thinking about magic. So three was an obvious choice for the number of different ways of being we wanted to explore. After some unexpected shenanigans we extended our locations beyond Norway to include Finland and Estonia, which turned out to be crucial to the development of the film.

Scope: These concepts you raise—utopia and the sublime—are particularly interesting with respect to history. Both of you have addressed these questions in your previous work in different ways, as you mention. But you’ve also located these tendencies in many different circumstances and milieus, from folks living on the fringes of the developed world by choice, to people in the two-thirds world engaged in various forms of spiritual practice. In light of this, how did the two of you negotiate between the subjects’ position in present-day geopolitics and their desire for something sublime or magical?

Ben Russell: Our own positions materialized first, of course. And to a very real extent, our subjects’ positions are mirrors to our own efforts at finding a way forward through an increasingly messy and cynical European worldview. How and where can we locate meaning in a post-postmodern, post-utopian, post-religious (but still spiritual) space? We were drawn towards subjects who approached these awkward and cumbersome topics in their own lives, in their own practices; we ended up choosing to work with humans whose political and social and cultural perspectives were in fact directly informed by their own inquiries into some sort of deeper meaning. This is magic, this is transcendence, this is the utopian possibility of collective energy.
Our film is populated by people from Missouri, London, and Brooklyn, from Tampere, Tallinn, and Vormsi. We had architects, teachers, cooks, an ex-city councilman, artists, and activists on our roster. In the case of the musicians we chose (like Taraka and Nimai Larson from Prince Rama), each of them exhibited a totally meaningful commitment to embodiment—to producing a presence that begins as one body but quickly extends into the body of the audience as well. The Estonians we worked with had a totally different relationship to belief and to collective living than the Americans did, coming as they did out of a post-Soviet political ideology, where communism made capitalism difficult and religion all-but-impossible, and a syncretic kind of paganism was the one belief system that seemed to weather the storm. In spite of their varied national backgrounds, our subjects all seemed to share in a kind of dark optimism—one that saw brightness and possibility in the sad chaos of global capitalism. It’s perhaps a bit clichéd to say as much, but there is a radical kind of magic in all of this.

Scope: In this context, it stands to reason, Russell, that you link these questions to the body (or bodies), and to a corporeal experience that perhaps cannot exactly transcend histories or ideologies, but certainly can provide a kind of supplement or “indivisible remainder” to those systems of thought. Throughout A Spell, this question of bodily supplement is manifested in different ways, from the fact of communal living producing mutual contact zones (like the shared bathwater, or more radically, the story about the orgy with various fingers in random buttholes), to the direct contact with isolated nature, right up through the physical sonic blast of the Black Metal show. You both also seem to try to employ carefully modulated dynamics in your sound mix, to generate a similar tactile zone in the screening situation. Do you think there is a state of phenomenological impact that could ideally transport your audience to a place beyond concepts, into a more palpable kind of viewing?

Russell: This is certainly one of our ambitions with A Spell: to produce a cinema of embodiment and transformation, one that affects viewers in a present specific to the time/space that unfolds between projector and screen. I’ve had enough visceral experiences of/through both experimental and more commercially oriented media to propose that such a thing is indeed totally possible. But neither of us wants to create such a state if it means leaving a cultural or political framework behind.

The kind of radical pleasure that transcendence provides is really only meaningful if it happens in relation to concept, in relation to a body that is not our own. It is vital to lose oneself, but it is equally important to find oneself again, to be able to rediscover our Self in relation to another Self—be it social, natural, etc. The last third of A Spell is a fairly strident declaration of this. We don’t want to merely overwhelm our subjects. We want to return them to themselves. And then we want to do it again and again. It’s no mistake that we took to referring to this section not only as BLACK METAL but also as PHENOMENOLOGY. In the COMMUNE and SOLITUDE sections, we aimed to arrive at immersion as well, albeit through two different sets of formal strategies that we saw as mirrors to the physical and ideological spaces that we were dealing with.

Scope: This seems like a fairly straightforward utopian desire, which is not to say that it’s easily achieved. I suppose I’d like to ask both of you why you decided on the feature-length format for this quest. Rivers, you made a recent featurette, Slow Action (2010), and both of you have made a recent feature-length film independently prior to this one. I realize you’re both still making short films. But I’m wondering whether you’re seeing a connection between this particular utopian drive, a spectatorial mode you’re shooting for, and a specific relationship to film time.

Russell: One of the most important realizations that I had through the making of this film was that cinema was, in fact, one of our best vehicles for realizing utopia. During a conversation about his experience in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, Tuomo (he’s the Finn who tells the asshole story in the film, also the subject of our next collaboration) proposed that utopia only exists in the present, that it can only be realized in the now. Cinema is a medium that is likewise always arriving (as the future) and receding (as the past) simultaneously. It is only alive when we are alive with it, when we share our time and allow our space to be occupied. It can only happen as experience in the present, and its capacity to produce worlds unto itself positions cinema as a very real site for utopia. For Thomas More, Utopia was a no-place, a construct; taken positively, this is cinema defined.

I guess this is a roundabout way of answering the question of duration, which is different than the question of time, although the latter certainly helps produce the weight of the former. In Let Each One Go Where He May, the experience of body-within-body that I was aiming for was made possible because of the amount of indexical time that the spectator spent with the subject, spent in the time of my film. The influence of drone music there is real, using “long time” to change the viewer’s time. Duration made this possible. In A Spell, we created three different film-times that each lasted around 30 minutes, long enough to draw our viewers in, to produce the present that we wanted.

Having said as much, I don’t think that either Ben or I set out to make long or short films, much less features or shorts. Our films tend to be the length that they need to be. Working with producers and within non-independent funding schemes can sometimes change this a bit as the feature model is the fundable one, but happily this hasn’t really been the case with A Spell.

Scope: To return to the idea of collaboration, I wanted to ask about the ways your own styles of filmmaking are reflected in the final product. It almost seemed reverse-Hegelian, like COMMUNE showed the two of you melding your approaches in a very deliberate way, SOLITUDE (with some key-moment exceptions) seeming to draw more directly on Rivers’ efforts like This Is My Land (2006) and Origin of the Species (2008), and BLACK METAL representing a kind of radical recontextualization of manoeuvers Russell explored in Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007). Of course, the deeper one looks at it, these initial responses are complicated. But does this reaction in any way correspond to how the two of you conceived the film?

Rivers: Not really. A Spell is a film that we collaborated on entirely, from beginning to end. The concept, the form, and the structure were arrived at with total participation from each of us. We never filmed or edited anything without the other being present, and while you’re right in thinking that the work points towards our own varied tendencies, you’re getting closer to the truth of the film when you sense a deeper reading pulsing just below that surface. And people who don’t know our earlier work but have seen this film thus far (we’ve had a few “work-in-progress” screenings) seem to have a much more complete experience of it, one that is not weighed down by a search for signs of the single authors within the collaborative duo. I wonder if this means that the unfamiliar audience is our ideal set of eyes and ears? Neither of us are willing to stick to this, as there are still a great number of audiences ahead of us. Sicinski Michael