A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

This interview with Ben Rivers and Ben Russell about their new film appeared on frieze.com:

Agnieszka Gratza: How did the two of you meet?

Ben Rivers: We met in Brighton. I used to run a cinemateque there with some friends for about ten years. One of the last things we did was host Ben and Jonathan Schwarz. They were travelling round with a programme called…
Ben Russell: ‘The Psychoacoustic Geographers’.
Rivers: That was in 2006.

AG: When did you start thinking about working together?
Rivers: We stayed in touch after that meeting and then we went on tour together in New Zealand and Australia, with a programme of films called ‘We Can Not Exist in This World Alone’, showing five of our films in conversation with each other.

AG: Was it your idea or did someone else suggest it?
Rivers: It was our idea and we put together the programme, thinking that there were ideas chiming in our work.
Russell: We may have different structural and aesthetic concerns but the human subject is ultimately what we’re interested in and excited about. Neither of us makes nature studies or films where the trace of humans is not somehow evident.

AG: And yet landscape is such an important feature of your films, and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013) in particular. It almost seems a character in its own right.
Rivers: It could be considered a character. I thought about that in connection to some of the other films I’ve made: Two Years at Sea, for example, portrays a relationship between a person and the landscape. But, as Ben said, we wouldn’t be interested in landscape in and of itself.
Russell: Even the word ‘landscape’ carries the suggestion that there’s a subject who’s viewing the landscape. When you look at representations of the sublime in 19th-century paintings, it’s always a tiny figure in a huge landscape.
Rivers: At the start of this project we were talking about the idea of the sublime, which is very much about landscape, the feeling of awe and fear that humans feel in the presence of beauty or of something that’s too big for us to comprehend.

AG: In the directors’ note, you say something to the effect that A Spell… is about the experience of ‘the transcendent’. How can you give a sense of the transcendent in a film? Are there any cinematic precedents of that you had in mind?
Russell: Line Describing a Cone by Anthony McCall.
Rivers: That’s good. We never talked about it but…

AG: You mentioned before, Ben, that the stunning opening shot of a forest reflected in a lake at dawn somehow described the infinity shape. Is that right? How was it made?
Rivers: Someone is sitting at the front of a small motorized boat on the lake.

AG: Was it the two of you?
Rivers: It was always the two of us.

AG: You’re very insistent about that.
Rivers: Because it’s true but also because it’s a bit of a bore how people try to pick apart how I did this and Ben did this, how that’s my part and that’s his part. You don’t collaborate to do things on your own.

AG: This is the first time you’ve collaborated with another filmmaker. Why haven’t you done so before and what’s the appeal of collaboration for you?
Rivers: I’ve always been very autonomous and maybe there was a fear of losing that autonomy. I think it was about finding the right person at the right time. Ben and I had been friends for a long time so it’s something that happened naturally. It grew out of discussion and shared interests as well as a mutual respect. He was in America and I was living here. Doing something creative seemed like a good way to hang out more together. I probably had more concerns about collaboration prior to it happening.
Russell: I’ve collaborated a lot and the reason that I continue to do it and enjoy doing it is that it makes me better as a filmmaker. I find it really easy to stick with the same strategies, framings or editing structures once they work, and I don’t want to get stuck in a particular form or approach. Having to collaborate with somebody is a way of introducing new ideas, new ways of thinking about one’s practice. Even when it doesn’t work or works less well you still learn from it. With this particular one, it’s more the experience of constructing spaces and relations with other people that has been generative; it’s set up a different model for how I want to work in the future. Rivers: It wasn’t just a collaboration between me and Ben, it was also a collaboration with other folk, like sound people, but also the people who feature in it, like the commune participants. They’re really important collaborators.

AG: Let’s talk about the way the film is constructed. It comes in three distinct parts. What would you say is its shape and was it always going to be a trilogy?
Russell: Its shape is a triangle.
Rivers: It was always going to be in three parts. We don’t think of it as a trilogy though, but rather as a triptych.

AG: Where would you say the difference lies?
Rivers: In a trilogy, the different parts are progressive, one follows the other; we thought about the film as one whole thing with three parts that exist simultaneously. (Of course that’s problematic when you put something in a cinema where it has to run in sequence.) That’s why there’s the recurrent triangle image.

AG: Which could be interpreted as some sort of a mystical symbol as well. There is a certain movement and progression to the film, though. The first part, which portrays a collective of people, a commune, is followed by a solitary section, and then the black metal section again features a group of people. So there is something of a dialectical progression to it.
Rivers: Of course, you could even call it a narrative progression. These things could happen in any kind of order but, as I said, when you show things in a cinema they have a natural progression; we had to figure out what would be the best order for them to work in. We actually had it in a different order for quite a long time.

AG: The film was three years in the making, and it went through various versions.
Rivers: It went through some unexpected shifts but essentially the core idea didn’t change. There were always going to be these three parts with COMMUNE, SOLITUDE and BLACK METAL. Originally it was going to be in one country, in Norway.


AG: Have you got any connection to the place? Why Norway?

Russell: Ben had made a film there a while back called Sørdal (2008).
Rivers: Viking re-enactors were our starting point, what got us thinking about Norway in the first place, but what they do didn’t strike us as a successful way of finding a spiritual relationship to the landscape in the present day. It seemed too retrospective, stuck in the past. We found what we were looking for in black metal, a genre of metal that comes from Norway and is connected with the idea of the North, a pre-Christian, pagan relationship to landscape and nature.
Russell: It’s not necessarily a positive relationship to it. There’s a gloomy energy to Scandinavian nature. The relationship of black-metal musicians to this place has to do with living somewhere where you feel at one with the elements. Nature is above you, around you, something you’re part of and not something that you can conquer or control.

AG: One obvious, or perhaps less than obvious, connecting element between the three parts is the protagonist himself, portrayed by Rob A.A. Lowe, who is not a black metal player as far as I know. He’s an African-American Brooklyn-based composer and musician. How did he fit into that role?
Russell: We were after somebody who didn’t fit into that role, into that place.
AG: Why is that? Why did you want this discrepancy?
Rivers: At the beginning we were talking about somebody who was from that place, somebody who could play in a black metal band but also live in solitude. We were thinking about a Norwegian or a Scandinavian. It was too straightforward, too easy to imagine an Aryan Caucasian in that world and in those roles.
Russell: We’d decided Norway was the place we were going to make the film. I went out there to check out a place in the Lofoten Islands and to meet an artist who had built a cabin over a mountain in a fjord. It was easy to understand why somebody would choose to do that. But when I was out there, taking the bus around because travelling was so expensive, the only people on the bus were Afghani and Somali refugees who’d been granted refugee status and given a place to live in the Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. It was so strange to see people clearly not from this place adapting to it. That discordance felt a lot more significant to us than having somebody who was at home and at ease in that landscape. We thought that the main character could function like a cipher or a stand-in for the audience.

AG: The first part especially, the one dealing with the commune, comes across as a tad didactic – possibly because it’s the one section that has dialogues in it. What’s your fascination with communal living in the first place?
Rivers: During the process of editing, we worked hard to reduce any aspect of dogma, which is always hard. As soon as someone is talking, people think that that’s your voice. We wanted to reach a point where those conversations were the same as all the other things Rob is experiencing: they’re part of something bigger that he’s passing through, picking up on.
Russell: The conversations are all a bit muddy in relation to one another, there’s no central through-line and this resists the idea of dogma or didacticism.

AG: Were these conversations something that would naturally occur or did you spur them on?
Russell: Definitely. We were looking at Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) as well as Milestones (1975) by Robert Kramer and John Douglas for models of how to deal with this particular situation. In both cases, there’s a great deal of spurring on, as you said. In Chronicle of a Summer, Morin casts himself as an on-screen catalyst for the discussions on the subject of happiness. I almost did the same thing, went as far as to grow a beard so that I would visually fit into our collective space. It wasn’t the route we took, preferring instead to use another strategy that is less visible but equally present in Chronicle… – the use of non-actors as agents or provocateurs for the conversations that transpire.
Rivers: We were setting the scene, asking people to have discussions around the idea of what it means to live together. These conversations were happening off-camera and, when we felt like something interesting was being said, we’d start filming. It’s not really staging as such, that seems too contrived, but orchestrating rather.
Russell: You’d asked what our interest in communal living is. One of the things that make the film difficult for a lot of viewers may be that the ideological proposition of collective living is something that disintegrated in the ’70s. Today, we use the word ‘commune’ and immediately hippies and free love and really vague and uninteresting images pop up. The relationship that most people have to collectivity or the commune is one of distrust and distance because it implies a certain kind of liberal politics that it’s easy to sneer at. But there are still collectives in the world, there is still an impulse to live as a group, and for Ben and me it was an important point of enquiry.

AG: To what extent would you say that the film can be described as optimistic or Utopian?
Russell: It’s a dark optimism. For us, the question of how to exist in the world significantly, construct meaning, and have important relationships with other people as well as with ourselves, is a hopeful question.
Rivers: I guess thinking about utopia actually came later in the progression of the film.

AG: So it wasn’t the core of the project?
Rivers: No, it might have been the core but without us knowing it or speaking of it.

AG: Utopia is such a loaded term. Etymologically it’s a no-place.
Rivers: Which is kind of right for our film. This idea that Utopia may be transient. It’s probably too brightly optimistic to think that it can exist in any kind of permanent way. A more realistic way would be to think about it as something transient that can be experienced, passed through, and that inevitably changes. And if you incorporate this idea of change into it, then you’re more likely to reach at least some kind of temporary Utopia, which goes back to this idea of cinema as something temporary.

AG: What do you want the audience to experience?
Rivers: The spell of cinema.
Russell: There are lots of ways of understanding the title – A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness – one of them is fire, one of them is cinema, as an incantation or a Utopian proposition.

AG: ‘A spell to ward off the darkness’ might then be a poetic definition of cinema itself?
Rivers: Yes. And fire is the first cinema.
Russell: As with the rest of our work, cinema is the subject and the vehicle. Here cinema is the utopia, this thing that happens as we’re happening with it, this thing that we get to engage with and this thing that leaves as soon as the lights come up and we walk out of the cinema. That Utopian moment is no longer there, it’s gone into the past.

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