Features | Listen to Britain: On the Outskirts with Ben Rivers

By Michael Sicinski

Rivers this is my land 1The cinema of Ben Rivers is one of the most bracing, refreshing new developments to occur in the experimental film world in recent years. This seems rather incontestable. Rivers’ work has been showcased by major international festivals such as Rotterdam, Oberhausen, Jeonju, and the Viennale, and in Film Comment’s recent poll of the best avant-garde films of the decade, Rivers’ Ah, Liberty! (2008) tied for third place, alongside films by established masters Ken Jacobs and Morgan Fisher. But these are just what we might call “the hard facts,” and they don’t really explain the impact of Rivers’ work. And it’s difficult in a lot of ways to describe that impact, because so much results from the films’ remarkable delicacy, their subtlety, and moment-to-moment dialectical unfolding. Seen in an experimental group show, Rivers’ films immediately appear to “not belong.” They unfold at a unique pace, they come from a different world, and partake in elements that resemble such genres as short-form documentary, ethnographic film, even the travelogue. But Rivers’ work constantly redefines itself. Like the subjects he prefers—people in the margins of the countryside, living in strange encampments and generating bizarre private utopias—Ben Rivers is an artist stationed between the zones of charted cultural space.

It would be easy to mistake Rivers’ films as small, private affairs, entirely in keeping with the earlier tendency Tom Gunning once described as “minor cinema.” But collectively, these films comprise one of the most ambitious, forward-looking projects on the current scene. Rivers first gained attention in the middle of the decade with a series of jewel-like affairs that, for example, explored the darkened interiors of abandoned homes, or captured the blanket of fog on the side of a rolling meadow of sheep. But his more recent mid-length films are simply astounding in their meticulous editing and attention to the specificities of place and individual subject. They all imply the sort of wholeness of purpose and follow-through we most often (unconsciously, perhaps) associate with feature-length cinema. Rivers is not only one of the finest contemporary practitioners of experimental cinema but far and away one of Great Britain’s best filmmakers in any genre. Certainly, in terms of engaging in a rigorous, soulful exploration of contemporary British culture, it all its fragmentation and variance, Rivers’ peers could be counted on one hand.

In many respects his black-and-white widescreen ethno-poetic films, Ah, Liberty! and I Know Where I’m Going (2009), realize the Griersonian aspiration even more than some of the masterworks that movement actually produced. The multi-subject, quasi-road movie I Know, with its combination of fragmentary specificity and cumulative vision, begins to resemble the spirit of Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942). Like all of Rivers’ films it forms an ideal, impressionistic tone poem that nevertheless provide a thorough (if objectively “incomplete”) knowledge of the single subject. In the case of Ah, Liberty!, we’re observing the environs of poor British kids living in a rural hinterland, about whom we know very little specifically. The film’s opening voiceover makes an ironic promise of conventional, liberal activist documentary, à la the Buñuel of Land Without Bread (1933), but what Rivers actually provides, from the rich, hazy establishing shot of the cloud-capped mountains, to the tracking shot across the wire fence, through extended observation of the boys riding around in red wagons or jerry-rigged, doorless cars, is something like a feature-length Flaherty film or an ethnographic entry from Michel Brault, with all the expository passages removed.

But Rivers’ films never stay still. They’re moving targets, and appear in avant-garde showcases for a reason—not just due to their sub-feature length. Part of what made the post-Grierson/GPO Film Unit British tradition of documentary unique was the aim of reconciling Flaherty and Vertov, and by extension, Bazin with montage. This is a particularly fascinating aspect of Rivers’ work—that unlike so much of today’s (frequently gorgeous) long-take derived filmmaking, these films are meticulously assembled. (For an in-depth example of how Rivers achieves concrete effects both within and between shots, I refer you to my website, where I discuss shots 16-21 of Origin of the Species: academichack.net/Viewsish2008.htm#Origin.) And, as Rivers intimates in our discussion, this assemblage is an objective correlative to the piecemeal world-constructions of his subjects, as well as perhaps our own more general experience of the landscape across multiple segments or sediments of time.

CINEMA SCOPE: Your work seems to function at a particular juncture of landscape cinema and experimental ethnography, but in a way that implies that the people in your films are entrenched or engrained in the fabric of the British landscape. Or perhaps vice versa. Is this a fair assessment?
BEN RIVERS: Entrenched, yes. My love of the British landscape is obvious, though it’s this human being stuck in the middle of it that I find so fascinating—the point where a person is not only powerfully attached and molded into their landscape, but also that the landscape has become somehow a world mirroring their own particular personality, their fascinations: a self-created island within the larger landscape that they were so attracted to in the first place. Most of the people that I have filmed have arrived at these places after much travelling; I find this interesting as a subtext to these films, that there is a desire to stop and create a world, as an individual or as a family. This worldmaking is at the core of my work, a kind of hermeticism.

I think in some ways this allows me to get close while still keeping a distance, by recording their intricate details laid out in the architecture of their small patch of land. It then becomes unnecessary to probe for the usual facts and reasons “about” a person, which I’m almost totally uninterested in for the purpose of the film. Because the film is also a world, it’s something I want to exist in and of itself, rather than being about something. This all brings me to J.G. Ballard, one of my all-time favourite authors. His work is all about the transformation of landscape into something that somehow frees the central character from all their preconceived norms, a place that is consciously significant to every decision made about how one is living and proceeding through the mire.

SCOPE: Exactly. The figures you highlight have, in some sense, “authored” their own landscapes (although, to paraphrase Marx, not under conditions entirely of their own choosing). So this seems to pertain to issues of materialism, in several relevant realms—the cinematic (in terms of the images produced, which are defiantly not metaphorical), the poetic (which again stem from a particular mode of lived existence under examination), and a renewed/revised anthropological or ethnographic impulse, which is about specific individuals from whom the films, to a great extent, refrain from generalizing (the mark of an art as opposed to a social science).

RIVERS: I’m glad you say my images are defiantly not metaphorical. This is one of the first things I learned from the master, Buñuel. What I attempt to do is experience the world in a particular place, with my camera in hand, and film instinctively at certain points. I’m gathering physical material that, as a set of individual images, has no meaning. Then through the subsequent process of editing, these images attain a new life, which isn’t necessarily about giving them new meaning, but giving them a rhythm which will enable them to become an experience of the film itself and not a representation of something else. One of the best things about using film is the time taken before I see anything, sometimes weeks when I’m away in the wilderness. This enables me to see the footage in a much more disconnected way, as I don’t want to react to filming while I’m at the location. If I were watching dailies I would be thinking too much about things I’d missed and not waiting to see what the next day would bring. I think this might make me more of an idealist than a materialist.
There is an interesting thing about making a number of films about people who are living in similar circumstances—in my case people living in isolation, far off the beaten track. I allow each film to grow in response to that person and the place they have “authored,” and I have found that each film quickly goes off on unexpected tangents that define its shape, and make any kind of generalization impossible. Apart from that, one obvious thing that distinguishes my work from anthropology is a remove from the idea that the film might serve a scientific purpose. In that case I can explore a certain way of life while constructing something more abstract. If people are looking for facts about certain characters in my films they tend to leave with unanswered questions—this doesn’t bother me at all, because in the end the film is about someone who exists only in the film, their own reality is something else.

SCOPE: Right. These tangents you speak of govern lots of aspects of the work. If you really look at, say, the “Dildo House” of George Browne in I Know Where I’m Going, or the children’s itineraries in Ah, Liberty!, you already get the sense that the spaces these folks have created are “rambling” spaces. They don’t have clearly delineated borders, they are assemblage spaces, and their movement within and through them is highly permeable in terms of the surrounding landscape. This attitude becomes the larger structuring principle for I Know Where I’m Going, where you’re moving from person to person and space to space in a kind of road movie (although upon inspection, that movement is more synthetic and implied than actual). So, you seem to always enter a kind of bombardment scenario, which then takes on a definite order when you organize the footage. How do you see your own relationship (or “responsibility”) between ordering these spaces in film, and honouring their anarchy? Or, what’s different between your “making sense” and that of the dwellers you depict?

RIVERS: First off I am most likely attracted to these places because they are the kind of places I used to spend a great deal of my childhood in—my friend’s neighbouring ramshackle farm or the abandoned factory and workers’ houses in my village. The idea that I can continue that exploration amongst the detritus of human remains seems to be a never-ending source of adventure. How the folk in my films are able to allow their world to spill out in a way that is almost impossible for someone to do in polite society becomes a stance, and also extends their love of the land. It’s a recognition that whatever junk they might have left out in a far corner of their space, that nature will at some point reinstate itself. This can’t necessarily happen in an urban environment. In Astika (2006), the film’s namesake has let his farm run completely wild for 15 years and is being forced out by continual pestering, because his neighbours object to the way it brings down the value of their property, even though they have no intention of moving.

I would say that my process mirrors the way they have assembled their spaces, which I feel is very much akin to an idea of collage. There are seemingly discombobulated parts that I move around until (in a word I heard Nathaniel Dorsky say the other night) a shot declares itself after another shot. This could be something formal, a line, a colour, a movement within the frame, or something so completely opposite to the preceding shot that it somehow works perfectly, or it can be something cerebral. This is the same as looking at a collagist like John Stezaker, who will put two images together that you would think could never work but somehow do. Of course with film I have the added component of sound that becomes part of the collage, and works with even more force to alter an audience’s expectations. One of the reasons I used black-and-white film for so long, and still like to, is that in these kinds of busy environments, it helps to bring this bombardment together into a hermetic world. Colour takes me a lot longer to edit, truth be told. For some reason, with black and white I often end up using almost whole rolls of film, largely untouched, because there is already an inherent rhythm in them.

SCOPE: I agree, and in particular the black-and-white images have a texture and a pull that calls on certain aesthetic and historical domains, such as the picturesque, a fascination with decay that has come from painting into photography and film. Black and white tends to fine-tune these textures. But then there’s also the surface texture of the film stocks themselves, which often seem worn, stressed or worked-over. Do you hand-process? Do you ever use expired film stocks?
RIVERS: Yes, and the textures you describe are all about the hand-processing, apart from the flashes and white-outs which are made by opening the camera back in between shots, or they are roll beginnings/ends. I pretty much always use brand new stocks. (One of the few times I used out-of-date stock, for Astika, I was a bit disappointed with the quality.)

SCOPE: Sometimes these surface effects as well as the exaggerated grain and the more deliberate tableau moments in the films seem to draw on older traditions of so-called Pictorialist photography, which is miles away from the “straight” ethnographic impulse. These laid-out, frontal moments are things you can see in This Is My Land (2006) and The Hyrcynium Wood (2005) but they’re especially present in your earlier films, like Old Dark House (2003), where you’re actually using photographic manipulations.

RIVERS: My earliest stages of filmmaking were a bit misguided, too in awe of great narrative films and stilted by how I thought one was supposed to make films. Around the turn of the millennium I decided to kind of restart; this involved freeing myself from having anyone else involved, going out with my camera and making experiments. Then tentatively they began to shape themselves into films, Old Dark House being the first one that I tend to show. I was so excited by how the superimposed roaming flashlight in a dark space was something absolutely unique to cinema, and this was a thing I’d been able to do with very simple means—a Bolex and a torch. All these earlier films focus on spaces that have been left by humans, and traces of their history are there to be found in the discarded objects and peeling wallpaper, turned into a process of renewal. As time has gone on and I have reintroduced humans into the space, I have moved away from these photographic manipulations towards more declarative shots and cuts—not even a dissolve is allowed these days. But what remains in my black-and-white films is the hand-processing, which I can control to a greater degree to produce marks and textures which I feel mirror the environment and the entropy occurring all around us. I like to think of the films as ones that could be discovered in a dustbin in 200 years, as the last few survivors run a projector by dynamo to find out just where everything went wrong.

I Know Where I’m Going was about a journey through a number of these environments, positing a view of Britain that could be sometime in the future. I usually like to spend a lot of time in locations, and make repeated visits, but the challenge with this film was to approach the journey as the environment and only allow myself a few hours within any particular stopping point, to see what I could get before moving back onto the eerily empty road. Happily I met Jan Zalasiewicz very early in the trip, who talked about the Earth in one hundred million years time, providing a bridge of huge geological time between all the separate parts. The film was initially edited like a diary, with different days as markers for over 20 chapters. Eventually I decided to see what would happen if I took out all these spaces and see how it worked as a non-stop flow, and preferred it.

In relation to the picturesque, I was thinking about how Robert Smithson discussed that the word picturesque itself has become deformed, away from the meaning of chance and change in the material order of nature. He mentioned this beautiful word, “Sharawadgi,” which refers to the Chinese influence on English gardens in the 18th century, meaning a “quality of being impressive or surprising through careless or unorderly grace,” which I think applies pretty well to the places I’ve been spending time. All the component parts, including the human being pottering around amongst everything, are given equal importance under the sort of instinctive scrutiny of the camera, as they undergo various slow transformations.

SCOPE: And like you said earlier, the people you profile are also transformed, largely through this equal importance. Once people enter your films, they become images and parts of an edited textual complex. They are not themselves. They’re semiotic and possibly poetic entities. I think even those of us in the avant-garde coterie, who like to flatter ourselves as being sophisticated, tend to lose track of this, since what you do engages so directly with the outer world in a manner that is still rather uncommon. I have vivid memories of some of us experiencing utter incomprehension at Mark LaPore’s films when he was presenting them new, because they were—to adopt Szarkowski’s simplistic language—“windows” in a very “mirror” time. I recently rewatched May Tomorrow Shine the Brightest of All Your Many Days As It Will Be Your Last (2009), and it really clicked on second go-round. The first time, I thought, “Why is Ben having his ‘people’ play-act in this stilted manner?” But of course, seen in the context of all your work, that film merely amplifies the performative aspect of your subjects. They’re playing off their own image as antisocial beings, and creating something like a Sidney Peterson workshop film.

RIVERS: I sometimes feel I’m floating in a strange netherworld between different forms of cinema, not quite reconciled to any particular type of filmmaking, but influenced of course by many. As an aside, I always think this comes from the fact that I spent much of my 20s more involved in showing work than making it. And we showed everything! Anyway, yes—when you start to film someone in their habitat, there are expectations based on this conditioning (both conventional expositional conditioning and “avant-garde” conditioning), and these need to be somehow successfully quashed and replaced by something unexpected to the audience, which of course isn’t always accepted. But that’s fine. I only recently saw a few of Mark LaPore’s films, and I felt a deep sense of connection, which is quite rare. Why do you think it is an uncommon approach to filmmaking?

SCOPE: I suppose I see most filmmaking, even on the avant-garde side, as still being about either abstract systems or personal expression, and not as much of it directly interfacing with the larger world in such a direct manner. I’m sure lots of people would disagree with this. But this is why you and a few others, like Ben Russell and Jennifer Reeves, strike me as having more in common with developments in certain radical realms of feature filmmaking, like the work of Lisandro Alonso or Denis Côté.
RIVERS: I haven’t seen Côté’s films, but Carcasses (2009) looks right up my street. I’m a big fan of Lisandro’s and I like him as a person too. But I’m also quite glad you mentioned Sidney Peterson, who was an early influence for me—the importance of play, and later Ron Rice in a film like Senseless (1962), which was really on my mind when making May Tomorrow… In some senses that film is all about playing at being a renegade band of old modernists turned tramps, still reading futurist poetry and still listening to vinyl, battling on through the mists of conformity. I think it’s dark and funny, and my old friend Bob couldn’t keep up with everyone, which is why he is usually seen being pushed in a wheelbarrow. I thought I needed to do it as an exercise towards setting up a completely fictional setting, which was how I originally began filmmaking so I wanted to see how that approach had changed.

There is also this aspect of the oneiric in cinema, that I have always found enduring, and informs this film and many of my others. In relation to that, the performative aspect has become more important as the films have progressed, particularly with a film like Ah, Liberty! That film became so much about collaborating with the people in this place to create images of themselves that differ quite radically from their reality. This is what I want to do next in going back to Jake Williams. I’m interested in seeing not only how his space has changed in the almost five years since I shot This Is My Land, but also in how my approach will change. I have already discussed with him the idea that I want to set situations up, so I’m excited about what will happen.
SCOPE: As much as your films address changes in the land and in ways of living with and on it, there is also that timeless dimension you alluded to earlier. For lack of better terms, we could characterize this as geological time, or trans-individual time. In Origin of the Species, ‘S.’ discusses the Darwinian position of the human organism and the brain’s adaptation in relation to the body and the land. I Know Where I’m Going addresses the geological longview of the landscape over and against its temporary denizens. Even on a purely visual level, a film such as The Coming Race emphasizes the relative insignificance of all that harried activity when seen in extreme long shot, from what could be called the hilltop’s own point of view. I’m not sure if it’s “mythic time,” in the Flaherty sense, although your films don’t completely abjure that approach either. How do you see your work as articulating these “vertical times,” and how do the human subjects factor into those timeframes?

RIVERS: Mythic time seems quite appealing to me, which I think Herzog gets at sometimes with films like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Fata Morgana (1971), and Heart of Glass (1976), which are probably my favourites. I’m not saying, “Look at the human being who is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.” I think in some ways it can be the opposite—that this is an incredible and fortuitous moment in the larger geological time of the Earth, or even the universe. This is what Jan is exploring. Will we or won’t we make an indelible mark on the strata of the Earth? Having Jan speak on I Know Where I’m Going really brought this interest in deep time to the fore, but as you say, it’s been there and I have tried to hold it in balance with some of the more minute details of someone’s life and the smaller landscape around them. Or in the case of The Coming Race (2006) where the mountain remains impervious in the presence of all these thousands of people going who knows where to achieve who knows what. But the mountain and the people are equally important to me.
I’ve always liked the idea of making films that were somehow outside of time, at least tricky to pin down to a contemporaneous moment, though having said that, I also like the little clues that do pinpoint, like the kid wearing a hoodie sitting on the hillside in The Coming Race, as thousands scramble around him through the mist. This might be a mythic time, but that seems to be analogous to the past whereas I’m more interested in the future. This is really where these ‘Scope films are coming from—Ah, Liberty!, I Know Where I’m Going, and the film I’ve almost finished shooting called Slow Action (a phrase coined by Darwin). They are attempting to create mythical spaces of the future, at least in my mind.

Right now Slow Action is three quarters shot, on three islands around the world: Tuvalu, barely rising above sea level in the middle of the Pacific with crazy amounts of rubbish; Lanzarote, a dry volcanic landscape that resembles another planet, with odd bits of architecture here and there; and Gunkanjima, an abandoned mining city island off the coast of Nagasaki. The latter two were shot without people and Tuvalu has observational shots of people. The fourth island will be somewhere in the British Isles and will be peopled by actors, wearing odd garb going about various rituals. For the soundtrack I have been collaborating with a science-fiction writer called Mark von Schlegell to produce fictional accounts of four islands Utopias set sometime in the future. I thought after Ah, Liberty! and I Know Where I’m Going I should not hold back and go all out post-apocalyptic sci-fi and see what happens. So I see it as completing something of a ‘Scope trilogy.

The other project I’m shooting this year is a short feature based again around Jake, the subject of This Is My Land. With this film I hope to shoot much longer shots and make something a little less fragmentary. The “portrait” films have been asking to get longer and now I have the opportunity to do this. It’s my intention to fictionalize his actions more than in the first film, to allow for more setting up of situations; other people may or may not turn up. There may even be dream sequences and flashbacks. I see this as the culmination of all the films about men living in the Scottish wilderness, with ideas moving more towards fiction, though I just heard about a very interesting man on the Isle of Harris so that statement may be thoroughly contradicted before long.
SCOPE: I’ve also learned that you’re planning to collaborate on a film with Ben Russell?
RIVERS: The film Ben Russell and I intend to make will be called A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, based in Norway amongst pagan re-enactors and failed communes, black metal festivals and Arctic hermits, in a continued blurring of document and fiction—an elaboration of many of our shared concerns from our last few years of filmmaking. It’s early days to discuss it, but I could quote a question he wrote to me: What is the place of uncertainty, of mystery, in an existence that has been overdetermined by understanding?
At the same time I’ve also been filming in an old metal plating factory that is closing down any day now, and what’s striking is the layers of strata within this building. There are literally stalactites on the sides of vats, full of oozing toxic liquids that, given time, would probably start a whole new form of bacterial life on Earth—or already have!

michael.sicinski@cinema-scope.com Sicinski Michael