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Interview with Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers is an artist who makes films. Two Years at Sea, his first feature-length film, was released to cinemas in early May. It’s about a man called Jake who lives alone in the Scottish Highlands.

The last time I watched a film by Rivers, the 16mm projector was installed in the seats of the lecture theatre. The audience was collected around this machine that was guiding film through its insides and spewing it out again, throwing up the image, loudly.

Rivers went to see Jake in 2005, where he shot the observational documentary This is My Land. He returned last year, collaborating with his subject, recording reenactments of his daily routine and staging imaginative events. Jake goes about his business; he washes in a makeshift shower, chops wood to make a fire, and walks through the wilderness. Partway through the film the caravan in which Jake has fallen asleep is hoisted up into a tree. Jake wakes up, opens the door and calmly looks out. We know he’s in on the act.

Rivers makes work for the cinema and the art gallery. For his recent exhibition at Kate MacGarry Gallery in East London, Phantom of a Libertine, he showed a 16mm film composed of fragments from a single traveler’s photograph album. Rivers likes clues; for Phantom of a Libertine, the slide show, as a mode of demonstration and revelation over time, is re-cast as a mode of looking, a mechanical way of perceiving something closely and from a distance, without disclosure. In Two Years at Sea, Rivers gestures towards the narrative of Jake’s life, how he ended up in this place, where he might have travelled to or who he might have met, through objects and pieces of music.

I met Rivers at the ICA on the day Two Years at Sea was released in cinemas nationwide. He spoke about the film and its subject, Jake, the relationship of fiction to documentary film, and the end of the world. 


QThe White Review — Jake Williams, the subject of your recently released feature film Two Years at Sea, is a very captivating character. What drew you to him? 

ABen Rivers — Originally I was looking for somebody who lived in a hut in the woods. I was quite specifically looking for that because I was reading this book called Pan by Knut Hamsun, which is about a guy who lives in a hut in the woods with his dog Aesop. He’s really socially inept. He’s overwhelmed by the nature around him, almost to the point of madness. That was the original catalyst, but I didn’t find anyone like the person in that book. I just started asking friends if they knew anyone who lived in the wilderness, and a good friend told me about Jake. I went to visit him in 2005 and made This is My Land. He was very welcoming. It was just chance, really, that drew me to him. I think he’s a very charismatic guy. I really like his face, I think his face has got a lot in it and that’s half the battle in a way.

QThe White Review — Finding the right face?

ABen Rivers — It’s the same with Hollywood movies isn’t it?

QThe White Review — A figure in the landscape has been a concern in your films, such as Origin of the Species (2008) and I Know Where I’m Going (2009). We could also identify a wider cultural fascination with hermitic ways of living. What’s the significance of stories about characters living in the wilderness to your work?

ABen Rivers — After my first film with Jake I started wondering if there were other people who lived like him, and if so how they might differ. Through a bit of travelling and asking around I found that there are quite a few people who have decided to live somehow away from society, but often for different reasons. The people I met and decided to film became catalysts for films which all went off at different tangents, dependent on what I found in the place and the personality and interests of the people. This is what fascinated me. Significance is difficult to pin down because the motives are so varied. Apparently people go grey earlier these days. People who don’t live in the wilderness are attracted to changing the speed and responsibilities of life. I have always been interested in living off in the woods. I don’t think it was about stress; I like working and being busy. I was thinking about it even when I was young so had little conception of stress beyond the usual embarrassments. It’s a good space for the imagination. 

QThe White Review — Could you describe the nature of your relationship to Jake?

ABen Rivers — He let me into his world, let me hang around and stay there for as long as I wanted. I started to film things, so the first film was really fragmentary and based on what I saw. I didn’t ask Jake to do anything, just go about his business, and I filmed what I thought was worth filming. When I got this money from Film London to make a much longer film I was going to make it about somebody else but a little way into the process I decided I wanted to go back to Jake. We’d stayed in touch the whole time and become friends, and I felt like there was more to be done in his world. I hadn’t finished with it. This is My Land is really short; it’s really a fragment. I wanted to work with someone who I knew I would be able to direct. We would come up with ideas together. If it was somebody new it might have been harder to have that kind of relationship. There was a lot of ease with Jake so it was really easy to talk to him about repeating actions, setting up scenes, doing things which he wouldn’t normally do, or he would normally do, or things he would think about doing but would never have got round to doing if I hadn’t been there. That’s how he puts it. He says he probably would have put a caravan in the tree or made a raft, but he means he probably wouldn’t have got round to doing it. 

QThe White Review — You have intimated that some of the scenes are staged. They could be described as re-enactments of his daily routine and his imaginative life, you ficitonalise his reality and picture his desires. Do you think staging produces a “truer” picture of your subject?

ABen Rivers — I believe in that implicitly actually, but it’s also not just about him. It’s also about me, it’s about cinema, and it’s about world making and what you want to do with that. ‘Truth’ is a hard word to use. It’s about making something exists for itself; it’s not a representation of something. This is part of the problem with the word documentary and it’s associations, but it’s also what makes it an interesting form; you can play with those things. And they have been played with right from the beginning. I always find it quite amazing that the question comes up all the time when someone using documentary forms shifts gear and fictionalises things. Some audiences and even other documentary filmmakers are shocked, even though Robert Flaherty and Humphrey Jennings did it, and Lumiere did it right from the beginning. Of course Herzog is the master of it. It happens repeatedly. It’s a ground I’m really interested in because it’s not about facts or data. We’re fed so much data, too much knowledge, too much information. I’m not interested in data. Obviously there’s some I want to know, but there’s an insistence that we need to be told everything and in a way that kills the imagination, which is a really important tool for humans. That’s one of the reasons why art is so important. I’m interested in making and watching films that can veer away from information and fact telling, so you’re not being told everything at every turn.

QThe White Review — You’ve mentioned some filmmakers, British documentary filmmakers of the 1930s and Herzog. It’s a lineage; you can’t separate the fictional from the documentary because one lives inside the other. What’s the significance of the trajectory of actuality, which promised straightforward telling, and documentary film to your work? 

ABen Rivers — The idea that something could be straightforward was always troublesome to me. This applies to so-called realism too; most documentaries I saw on TV as a younger person put me off entirely. It wasn’t until much later when I saw those films, along with those by Rouch, Marker, Varda, Kramer and many others that the form started to open up to me and become more interesting, partly because it wasn’t about condescending the audience, and also because I began to see this space of, as you say, one living inside the other. It was only in 2005 that I began to make something close to documentary almost by accident. I wasn’t calling it that or thinking in those terms. The significant thing that changed for me was that instead of constructing everything – the space, inhabitants, objects – I was using existing ones. Then the editing became completely free from the actual and at that point it is all about constructing a film that works on its own terms, almost disregarding of the source. Each subsequent film has developed from this process, some films remaining more faithful to the actual place and person, while others veer off wildly in their own way. 

QThe White Review — Watching Two Years at Sea brought to mind The Moon and the Sledgehammer, which is about a family who live in the woods just outside Horsham, West Sussex. It’s an obvious parallel; the films are about people living out hermitic existences, living on the margins. 

ABen Rivers — I really like The Moon and the Sledgehammer, it’s a really great film. There’s a closer association, especially in terms of form, to This is My Land. There are definite parallels; direct address to the camera and a more observational mode. With Two Years at Sea I wanted to construct more, I wanted it to be more like cinema, move further away from an idea of documentary by shooting in cinemascope and not having any dialogue. I thought about Lisandro Alonso, his film Los Muertos. I really love Pier Paolo Pasolini but it would be hard to see that by watching the film. That’s the thing about influences, they’re accumulative, you don’t know what’s feeding in when you’ve seen and read so much stuff. I’ve had this life long love of Science Fiction, and you could also see that in some way. Two Years at Sea could be like post-apocalyptic movie. I like books and films about the last man on earth, and it could easily be read like that. I quite like that as a reading.

QThe White Review — I guess that’s what ties Two Years at Sea and the Moon and the Sledgehammer together; these aren’t people living out existences in the past. This could be what we will all be living like.

ABen Rivers — I didn’t know much about the 2012 end of the world thing, do you know about that? Supposedly the world is going to end, I think at the end of this year. A lot of people take it really seriously. There have been so many end of the worlds in different calendars.

QThe White Review — Aren’t they running out? Maybe that’s when the world ends, when all the calendars run out?

ABen Rivers — Maybe that’s it; this is the last one, that’s why people take it really seriously. There was a huge disaster movie about it last year, and mega ads on the sides of busses. You didn’t see it? Anyway, some people who take it real seriously say it’s not the end of the world, obviously. Instead it might be a massive solar storm, which knocks out all the electricity. What would happen if all the electricity disappeared in a flash? You can just imagine the chaos, how many people would die because they’d have no idea how to exist without electricity. So the films could be propositions for what happens a hundred years after an event like that. There’s pessimism but there’s also hope.

QThe White Review — Jake seems to be living with his past. You film his photographs, which seem to show him as a younger person, and then friends or relatives, from a past lived with other people. He also spends time sorting through all his stuff he’s accumulated. Could you describe some of those decisions?

ABen Rivers — With a lot of my films over the years I’ve been interested in spaces and objects as a way to build a portrait of a person, an understanding of who they might be without that straightforward telling. So that’s the strategy for Two Years at Sea, to give the audience these clues to a past. There’s still plenty of room to decide who the person in that photograph is, or where an object or a piece of music comes from. So the Indian music in the film is significant to Jake’s life, there’s a reason why it’s there; it’s music he bought when he was working as a merchant seaman and going to markets. I like the idea that you don’t have to know all the answers and it’s fine not to know. You’re still getting a pretty intimate view of someone but it’s a moment in time. The rest of it you can think about because you’re never going to find out everything about a person. Even if I made a really straightforward documentary with loads of talking and everything explained you’re still never going to know the person. I’m much more interested in making something that is not necessarily about that person. I’m interested in working with that person collaboratively to make something new, to make something that exits just for itself.

QThe White Review — You explore these ideas in the gallery as well as the cinema. At your recent show at Kate MacGarry you showed a film of fragments from a photograph album, and a series of photographs of objects, which seem to belong to a whole but are also kept apart. When a visitor enters the gallery they are often left without answers, “clues” as you put it. The cinemagoer is not necessarily complicit in the same way. What do these sites of encounter offer you as an “artist who makes films”?

ABen Rivers — You’re right, the cinemagoer is perhaps less prepared for going away with unanswered questions. We’ve all been taught over decades that the cinema will provide plots and the necessary information to know exactly what’s going on. Then of course there’s a whole area of cinema that fought against this passivity on the part of the audience and asked for heightened engagement of the imagination or other vital parts of the brain, which can also be temporarily disengaged when watching plot or action based films, and this is the kind of cinema that has influenced the films I want to make. It’s important to me that I continue to show in both spaces because even when showing exactly the same film, the context can change the interpretation of the film, which can be exciting. Some writers inevitably refer to me as an artist when reviewing Two Years at Sea and maybe that’s helpful for the audience. They have something of a preparatory warning that things might not be completely straightforward, and they can choose whether to go along with that or not.

QThe White Review — You are currently collaborating with another artist, Ben Russell, rather than a subject. He has also engaged with the remake or re-enactment; Lumiere’s pseudo-actuality film of workers leaving a factory re-located to Dubai for example. Some films in his ‘Trypps’ series refer to Jean Rouch’s ethnographic film of the 1960s, which spawned neologisms such as “ethnofiction” because he directed his subjects to an extent. What’s the nature of your relationship to his work? Could you describe the nature of your collaboration?

ABen Rivers — Our collaboration comes out of shared interests in the things you mentioned, plus many other things like shared interests in certain kinds of cinema and music. In 2008 we toured the Antipodes with a programme of our films, five by each of us, called We Can Not Exist In This World Alone, that explored ethnographic themes, humans in the 21st Century, experimentation with 16mm film, and construction in cinema. Our films are formally quite different but there were a lot of things that chimed, which we discussed more every time we saw them together at each screening. It became inevitable that we should try to make something together, try and push each other to do something that we wouldn’t had we been working alone, which seems as good a reason as any to collaborate. We also both believe in the idea of productivity, being prolific and trying things out, not working only on one film at a time, which we hope encourages less preciousness. We are making a feature film and installation shot in Finland, Norway and Estonia, called A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, and a medium length film made in Vanuatu. The practical nature of the collaboration is very simple, we share everything, from the origin of ideas, to camera work through to editing. Nothing is done alone. 

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