Ben Rivers,(FROM TOP:) Sørdal, 8min, 16mm, 2008. Installation view for On Overgrown Paths, Permanent Gallery, Brighton, 15 Nov-15 Dec, 2008; The Origin of the Species, 2008, 17mins, 16mm.
DAVID BERRIDGE: The selection of your work at this years London Film Festival [Ben Rivers at The Edge of the World, BFI Southbank, 26 Oct 2008] presented four films made in the last two years. What, for you, were the common stylistic and thematic threads (or differences) between those works?
BEN RIVERS: For many years prior to making what I consider the first of this series - This Is My Land - I was making films about places without humans, though where they had once been and left traces and remnants of their history. These all revolved around an idea of hermetic worlds, or ways of world-making - this has been a recurrent theme since I began making artwork seriously (and has developed through talking with artist Jeremy Butler for the past 15 or so years).
Ben Rivers, (FROM TOP:) Origin of the Species, 2008, 17 mins, 16mm; This is My Land, 14m, 16mm, 2006.
For a long time this applied to my own personal world-making - building constructions, often on a miniature scale, in order to propose a fake world as a reality. In some ways these portraits are a continuation of this, only now the figure is present, and you see them living within the space they have created for themselves. These people are real, they exist in this space, but the recording of the sounds and images in this space are just the beginning - the accumulation of material - the construction of the world in the film only begins in the editing.
This means while all the films have a similar starting point they often go off into completely different areas of investigation dependent on what I have found, usually unexpectedly, in that place.
DB: Trying to write about the films after the festival I thought about a spectrum from humanist documentary to a more poetic aspect that reminded me of, say, Herzog's Fata Morgana or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's Atomic Park.
BR: I'd love to see Atomic Park. I've seen others of her films and really liked them. I really love Herzog - in particular Fata Morgana. I'm not sure about the poetic term, which has been used in relation to my work before. Not because I disagree, I'm just never too sure what it means - what do you mean by poetic?
DB: I often think of it regarding New American Cinema, because that's where it seems most sharply defined. Firstly, particular relationships of film-makers and poets: Brakhage writing about his debt to Gertrude Stein, for example. More broadly, "poetic" as the using of film language to obtain the lyric poems effect of "direct communications of sensibilities and visions." (Ken Kelman, Film as Poetry, Film Culture, 1963).
Of course this translates into a whole series of techniques, and attitudes to the image that are non-narrative, associative, and sensual. Perhaps a co-presence of world and imagination at all times- and it's this I was finding in your films.
I see your point. Perhaps, in this second sense, "poetic" just becomes too general to be useful, and the term should be kept for film-makers like Abigail Child or David Gatten who engage specifically with ideas and communities of experimental poetry, rather like your own dialogue of film and anthropology.
BR: That pretty much summarizes my understanding of poetic film, and what troubles me at times is the associative, and how that can be misinterpreted as symbolist, something I feel very much in opposition to.
What I like about the films you first mentioned is the same grounding in documentary imagery, but an almost complete disregard of the rules of that form - I want to make work that is not tied to an idea of facts but rather uses images of actual events/places/people as an acknowledged means to explore beyond the narrowing confines of documentary, at least what documentary has come to represent.
Ben Rivers, A World Rattled of Habit, 16mm, 2008.
I don't want to be explanatory, I want there to be strangeness, mysteries, like bits of memory. Having said that there are many documentaries I love - Humphrey Jennings, Jean Vigo's Apropos de Nice, Moholy-Nagy's Marseille portrait [Marseille Vieux Port]...these would fall into the humanist poetic I guess you're talking about, they also have a political edge which doesn't overflow into dogma.
Someone recently wrote about Ah, Liberty! and said it aims, as Trinh Minh-ha used to say, "not to speak about, but to speak nearby." I liked that.
DB: Do you have a sense of such a spectrum, of distinct approaches in your mind? How do these different approaches or tones relate?
BR: I try not to think about what kind of film I'm making while I'm in it - I attempt to trust my instincts, to let the work guide itself in some respects, starting with an idea but allowing the situation to guide me and the film.
I used to spend a lot more time worrying about what kind of film I was going to make, what was it about etc. Now I'm quite adverse to this, it seems I could end up illustrating an idea that is already set, which would be a little redundant.
DB: How specific are you about how films are screened? This is partly about the differences between galleries and cinema differences, but also on a more fundamental level-
BR: I'm fairly particular in terms of showing on film - I think if you shoot on film and go to the trouble of making prints, then a gallery or cinema should show it in that way - with the very occasional compromise if that's really the only way to get something shown.
I enjoyed showing only in cinemas for quite sometime because I like that space, the darkened room, comfy chairs, surrounded by strangers experiencing a common event. But there can be problems with audience expectations in relation to narrative drive and the desire of an audience to be passive and taken on a ride. Also, for years you show your work in group programmes in festivals, which can at times feel very disconnected to your own thinking.
Sørdol, birdseye installation view in On Overgrown Paths,
My move back into showing in galleries over the last few years has been precipitated by the fact that galleries have increasingly shown work in environments created by the artist - it seems fairly recent that galleries have given the medium of film more respect. Creating an environment which reflects the work, or which gives the work physical and mental space around it, makes showing in galleries increasingly more ideal to me.
Presently I'm showing three films in three separate hand-made shacks, made from various left-over pieces of wood, doors, windows, corrugated iron, and a turf roof. These allow the viewer to be conscious of the space within which they're watching the film and consequently their own relationship with the projected image.
Origin of the Species, installation view at On Overgrown Paths.
DB: Actually, I'm making a wrong assumption here that showing film in the gallery is necessarily more expansive. I saw Ah! Liberty at Cell after the LFF screening. The room and the wide screen made me feel at first like I was looking through a slit in a bird hide. I was drawn into it but it was posited not so much on the spaciousness of the gallery but of passing through the constraint and narrowness of this frame.
BR: Exactly! The gallery allows for the manipulation of space to draw the viewer into the space of the film in a very different way to the cinema. Ah, Liberty! has been expansive when it's shown in a big cinema, which is great - but this was not going to happen in Cell so it transformed to something more personal - the scope lens made it feel more like peeping into a world, which I really liked. I've only made one film so far though which will only play in galleries - on the whole I'm interested in continuing to exhibit in both spaces because I like to see how the work changes in relation to space.
DB: In my notebook at the festival I wrote: "I struggle with the doubleness of these films." Writing this up now, I have no idea what I meant. Is there a double-ness about them for you?
BR: I struggle with doubleness too - when I'm making something it can be hard to pin things down to one train of thought, because that's not how things appear to me, nothing is that simple and my brain is constantly going off in different directions, tangents. I think if this is frustrating in the work I'm not necessarily against that - I like Nic Roeg and his lateral editing.
As an aside, I've always been fascinated with doubles - like The Double, The Late Mattia Pascal, Jeckyl and Hyde, werewolves, etc. I read a lot of them - and my first film at college was a take on Jeckyl and Hyde, so I wonder if there's a sign there.
Ben Rivers, Ah Liberty! 2008, 19 mins, anamorphic 16mm.
DB: Introducing a programme you curated - of your own films and other peoples - for the ICA's Nought to Sixty exhibition you talked about ethnographic film and relations to anthropology. I'm interested how you came to make this connection - what is it, for example, through other artists like Jean Rouch or Trin T.Minh-ha, or was it through certain writings of anthropologists?
BR: This came about fairly recently through discussions and Q&A's while traveling with friend and fellow filmmaker Ben Russell in the Antipodes. We were traveling with a programme titled We Can Not Exist In This World Alone, consisting of five each of our own films. These films proposed ideas about what it means to be a human being in the world today, and looked at various forms of human behaviour and constructs.
We couldn't help but try to understand our own work with historical film practices that attempted to understand human beings, ethnographic film being a major component of that. The main divergence we found with our own work and ethnographic filmmakers, is that we don't have an allegiance to science - we're not attempting to explicitly explain a certain set of behavioral characteristics of a particular group of people that can be 'used' in a scientific way.
Rather, we're more interested in what happens when you turn a camera on a particular part of society, and what kind of truth can be gleaned from that - our own involvement becomes key, which is why we felt a connection with certain types of ethnographic filmmaking that seemed as interested in the whole process, including the audience response, as the subject. For example, Timothy Asch doing something like making 4 edits of the same event and showing them as one film [The Ax Fight, 1975].
One major problem with ethnography seems to be this patronising stare made by one culture of another, or one person of another. Or the idiot on TV who goes into different isolated tribes and pretends to be part of them while always making sure he gets his hour long bit of drama.
DB: What practically has the relationship to anthropology consisted of for you?
BR: Practically speaking I use the same kind of methods. I spend time looking, then with minimal means begin recording sound and image, and when possible make repeated visits. These are all things which would probably chime with an anthropologist filmmaker.
DB: What do we learn from an artist's anthropology?
BR: I'd be interested to ask an anthropologist this question - they may very well see my films as frustrating as they only show glimpses or fragments, which is the way I interpret the way I see things through the camera - along with the impossibility of ever being able to see the absolute whole of something or someone. This then enables the film to expose themes outside of the focus in a way that ethnography is unable to do because its about just recording facts.
Exterior and interior shots of hut constructed for On Overgrown Paths, projection of Sørdal.
DB: Thinking of your own films in terms of this question it strikes me that certain of your films could be read as very condensed models, proposals, poetic scenarios. Would you see them like this?
BR: Yes, all three of those! Maybe they are a way of seeking potential fictions in a real place, and then using the magic of film to enable the viewer to enter into that space. I feel these proposals will start to get longer, that I'd like to get my teeth into something more ambitious in length, but at the same time, I like what filmmakers can achieve in a condensed amount of time.
I've been talking a lot recently with Ben Russell about the defined length of a roll of film and the 11 minute take - how an event or whatever it is you're filming becomes important in relation to the moment when you decide to start this roll of film, with the commitment of seeing it through to the end. These parameters of using film become something to exploit as part of a work, in a way video can't really get at.
DB: I guess I'm also seeing the films as fairly improvised and spontaneous. Is that right? What pre-production do you in terms of scripts or storyboards or other ways of planning?
BR: I used to make lots of storyboards when I began filmmaking but now I haven't made one for a few years - the last was for House, which I needed because I was building models. All the films that are based around people have no storyboards or scripts - I begin with an idea, and set myself up in a space where there is always the possibility of serendipity.
Ben Rivers, Sørdal, 2008, 8mins, 16mm.
I'm fairly instinctive with where I point the camera, particularly on my first visit somewhere - this is why I like to make more than one visit, so I can see the first lot of footage and listen to sounds. Then I'll begin putting things together and from this get a better idea of what the film will be. Then when I go back to filming I have a much clearer idea of what I want to capture.
DB: And what about the relation of shooting to post-production and editing? What tends to emerge at each stage in the process?
BR: The work really takes shape in the edit - filming seems more joyful to me, easy and based more in experiencing the moment - the edit takes longer and is harder work for me. So much can change by what image is put next to the next, or what sound is placed over an image - when things begin to take shape like this, and create unexpected meaning, this is when I get really excited.
DB: In Ah, Liberty! you also worked with the children to make masks and act out role plays. Is that about an interest in theatre?
BR: I consider all films fictions to varying degrees - my films for sure, because I know first hand the tricks I'm playing with. I find theatre very unnerving, these actors speaking their rehearsed lines right in front of me. Film fiction is something else altogether. What I'm interested in exploring is the deliberate interjection of fiction into what would be considered as a real space.
I want there to be an acknowledgement, on my part, the subjects part, and the audience's part, that [the film] isn't an objective depiction of reality but a construction that has at every point been influenced by my actions, with the camera, directions, the sound, the edit. This reflects my interest in filmmakers who consistently use non-professional actors - the difference in the resulting films is enormous. I'm interested in this ground that has been around since Cavalcanti and friends, a blurred line between document and fiction where anything is possible, and the idea of what is 'real' is much more complex.
In Sordol, my most recently completed film, I've used a quote from The Libertine by Louis Aragon which I've been wanting to use for years but never had the moment - it says: "I'm quite incapable of determining at what point the lie begins and takes definite shape, when it ceases to be in agreement with what is and becomes delusions accomplice."
This has always typified my excitement about filmmaking, making my own as well as filmmakers I admire, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul being a recent example. That's why I often refer to the people in my films as collaborators in that sense, because they are acting to some degree.
The Origin of the Species, installation for On Overgrown Paths.
DB: Actually, I think I know what I meant by doubleness. It was the balance between the details of individual lives and also the poetic ideas or themes - of, say, entropy, danger, and apocalypse - that occur in the films.
BR: Then it seems strange that you'd be troubled by it - this is really what excites me - that I can somehow make a portrait of someone, with honesty, while also approach other ideas and themes. What troubled me when I realised I wanted this to become a series of films was the fear that I'd repeat myself, because This Is My Land had been relatively successful.
Ben Rivers, Ah Liberty!
What I've found and tried to exploit could be this very doubleness your talking about - which is what results in taking each film down a different path, while still crossing recurring paths with the other films. I'm very happy when some people respond to Ah, Liberty! with thoughts about Utopias, or the life of this particular family, while others talk about entropy and danger.
DB: But how are those two different aspects of the film present in your own decisions when making a film? Are you trying to depict as fully as possible the lifestyle and habitats of your subjects?
BR: This has to be the start - but say with Origin of the Species, it wasn't the fact that he was another hermit living in the wilderness that interested me, it was the story I'd heard through a friend about a person who remained resolutely unacademic, but who had spent years reading Darwin in an attempt to try an understand more fully the workings of the world.
There are many many things about his lifestyle that aren't depicted in that film, for example you never see the interior of his house, where he spends a great deal of time - the selection of what I choose to show is dictated by the idea.
Ben Rivers (FROM TOP:) The Origin of the Species; Astika, UK-Denmark, 2007, 16mm, 8 mins.The Coming Race, 2006, 5mins, 16mm.
With Ah, Liberty! I didn't have any idea about what this place might be, my making a film there was almost accidental - so with that film I began by simply filming things that interested me in that place, then went away and looked at the footage for a couple of months which formulated ideas upon which I could hatch a plan. This film leaves out even more 'reality' in the end - eschewing all shots of adults for example, which sets up a quasi-fictional space within which the film navigates.
This highlights again the importance of the editing process in my films, the portraiture of habitat comes first, then the themes are developed through working with the material, seeing what it's capable of beyond my initial expectations. This requires a certain detachment from the material i.e. that if I set out with very set ideas, with storyboards etc. the film would be an illustration rather than a thing that can evolve and change.
Ben Rivers, The Coming Race, 2006, 5mins, 16mm.
This is another reason I prefer to use film – I don't know exactly what I've got until I get home, so I can't react immediately to the material. The delay between the action of recording and the eventual edit allows for an element of surprise, coupled with equal measures of exhilaration and disappointment, which ultimately help shape the work.
DB: The question of extreme or unusual subjects is a loaded one for documentaries. How do you expect/ want audiences to respond? What position do you think you take to your subjects?
BR: I agree this is an area where a filmmaker needs to tread carefully, there being numerous examples of films and TV documentaries that patronise their subjects, particularly for cheap shocks and laughs. I think because I grew up in the countryside and don't see any of these subjects as particularly unusual or extreme allows me to have a relaxed approach to filming without worrying.
I communicate and get involved with other jobs that need doing while I'm visiting, which seems to be a very different approach to blundering in with a crew and then skipping off to a hotel at the end of the day. The subjects are kept informed of what I might attempt to do with the film and I always say I'm not making a documentary, but a film that might be as much about me as them.
DB: There's also the juxtaposition of the distinct cultures of your subjects and the culture(s) of artists, critics, galleries, and film festivals in which your films are shown. How do you see those two worlds relating?
BR: The people I've been filming have no connection to the world I live and work in, which is funny. They don't have a problem with this and enjoy the films I've made about them. When you make work it becomes yours - I always hope the subjects will like them, and if there was anything they found offensive to their portrayal I would do something about it, but apart from that the work takes on its own life, to be read in multiple ways depending on the viewer.
DB: What were your aims as a film programmer [of the Brighton Cinematheque, with Michael Sippings] and how does that relate to your aims as a filmmaker?
BR: Most of it was based on my having only read about films for so long and this was a chance to finally try and get hold of them, see them myself and share them with an audience. Also seeing things in the way the filmmaker intended - so even though now there are multiple chances to see rare things on the internet, we always tried to show film work on film. We tried to show films completely across the board, from early silents through to underground trash, to new features that weren't being shown at the art-house to artist and experimental film and video.
Two of us did the bulk of the programming with a number of guest curators, so there was a lively mix of tastes. Of course all of this informed me as a filmmaker, but for the years when we were most active it was also a little stifling, not only in terms of time, but the wealth and breadth of work I was seeing sometimes made it difficult to see what I wanted to do myself. When we lost our space I went from making one film every two years to making six films in a year!
Installation view, This is My Land, for On Overgrown Paths.
DB: The quality of the image in Ah! Liberty: its grains and flickers, its fragility. You said at the LFF that it was from hand-developing the film. But what led you to work this way?
BR: Originally money - I wanted to be as DIY as possible, so this enabled me to make more mistakes with film to learn how to use it. Then it became a tool which I could control and manipulate, so I have continued to use it. I still like the idea of being self-sufficient, that something can be made with modest means while retaining the aesthetic quality I require.
Now I'm making more colour films, which I process at the lab, so things have become more expensive. This happened because I felt like I was becoming too relaxed using these hand-processed textures of black and white film and felt like using colour would be a new challenge. Though I'll continue making b/w films too.
DB: How interested are you in exploring formal properties of film-making?
BR: I believe in the idea of form and content working together in harmony, both working towards a shared goal. The problem for me when I was developing as a filmmaker was being seduced by aesthetic and formal considerations, which I felt resulted in either speaking to a small community of filmmakers, or worse just being nice to look at.
I want to engage with an audience on other levels, for there to be a variety of ways of seeing and interpreting the abstraction of an edit, or a sound over an image - this is strengthened by controlling the formal aspects of a work but not allowing them to take over.
I worry at the start of a film: should it be colour or black/white, 4:3 or cinemascope? Do I need to make shots longer than 26 seconds? As I said up before, the length of the shot when using film becomes a crucial formal decision, and is an example of how form becomes integral to the content. Stuff like that are formal decisions that need sorting out from the beginning, but then once I've made those base choices I make most formal decisions looking through the lens, and then of course structurally in the edit.
Ben Rivers, House, 2005, 16mm, 5mins.
DB: You made a film in a week especially for the London Film Festival. How did you feel at the time and now about the whole process of working so quickly?
BR: This was really great for me, and it happens occasionally, usually after I've spent a really long time making something. Origin of the Species took well over a year, with many months meticulously changing the edit, so making A World Rattled Of Habit in a week was a joyful experience. But now I'm left wondering: do I leave it as it is, this fragment of a father and son, or do I go back and film more ? My instincts tell me I should probably leave it.
The new film I'm working on will actually develop this model - by taking a road trip up through Britain, stopping off here and there, and seeing what can be captured each day - and subsequently what can be made from a lot more material than I usually have to work with.
DB: So what else is are you obsessed by at the moment?
BR: Currently I'm most interested in island biogeography; making longer take shots; animals in artists film; Luther Price, Douglas Campbell and Stephen Sutcliffe's use of found footage (I would make found footage films if I didn't enjoy filming so much); Phil Soloman's use of Grand Theft Auto; utopias and apocalypse; late 19th/early 20th century predictive fiction; and films with just words (spoken or written). And road trips. And reading Swiss detective stories.
This interview between David Berridge and Ben Rivers took place by e-mail in December 2008.