Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, seen at the BFI

Thursday, April 26, 2012 8:47:55 PM

hermit, Two years at Sea, cinematography, cinema, british film, 16mm, film art, films, Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea UK 2011. 88mins

This is a very unusual film in every way. It is a cinematic feature film that has been made with a sensibility and process we are more used to seeing in the gallery based category “artists film.” “Artists films” are not movies. Yet Two Years at Sea is a movie, in the original and best sense.

It’s a film that is at first glance appears to be a documentary but it isn’t. It’s about a hermit who lives at the edge of the world in an eerie, unpopulated place living off the detritus of civilisation. In his isolation he does odd but rather fun things, like putting a caravan on the top of a tree so he can hang out in it and sway with the wind. The hermit seems to be unaware of the camera, as he goes about his self sufficient, taciturn routines.

Yet that’s not the truth. Rivers has built a fiction, yet it retains a sense of the mystery of quiet observation. It’s not a documentary. The man is a real person, Jake, and he does live in a remote place but it’s Scotland which, while rural is still fairly populated. And he is playing a character, a hermit called Jake* who barely speaks and who virtually melts into and merges with the physical world in which he lives. Hints of a past, smudged images in the form of still photos whisper of a previous life but deliver nothing specific. We watch, not sure what to believe but compelled anyway. Actually it’s Jake and Rivers who’ve built this fiction, in a careful collaboration that starts with Rivers’ interest in hermits and builds to Jake’s co-creation of a character based on him, but not him. Silent, yet articulate in gesture and movement, Jake is an eloquent work of nature.

Rivers runs the camera himself and also hand-processes the 16mm film stock. This is so unusual it’s worth talking about. Because most artist film makers actually practice the same kind of system that commercial cinema does, no matter if the final product is revealed in the gallery instead of the cinema: that is, they do not operate the camera. Yet, unlike commercial cinema, they don’t usually credit their DP or editor, but instead claim authorship in a way that mainstream directors can never dare to. An odd state of affairs, if you think about it. Rivers by contrast, is DP, director, lab and editor, a tour de force of skill that, combined with his singular artistic vision, is truly remarkable and delivers something very, very special.

The film gifts the viewer with something very unusual, not only in cinema but in daily life as well: time. The film is about time but not the portentous symbolic quasi religious sense of time that Tarkovsky and his school of film makers practice. River’s time is more prosaic, more humble yet all the more compelling for that. He allows us the sheer luxury of focusing on the minutiae, on the details of life. The sequences pull us into the intricacies of the small rituals of life, lived in its fullest material sense. The title hints at the sense of time that the film unfolds: Two Years at Sea is not a literal title, there is not sea and we have no idea if the film takes place over a two year period or not. But there is that same sense of time slipping past, the waves of wind substituting for the waves of the sea. What is sea or land, or seasons or weather? We experience time, yet we don’t because it is so imperceptible.

A dark room, a beam of light, and rows of upturned faces bathing in the luminance of shifting, flickering moving images. That is cinema. Rivers, together with his distributor Soda, is reasserting the most important principle in “artists cinema”, that it is – or can be – cinema. That it must be seen in a cinema and appreciated as cinema. We should be very grateful that for 88 minutes at least, Rivers has allowed us to experience a definition of cinema that returns us to its very roots.

Two Years at Sea released by Soda Pictures from 4th May 2012

A review by Jonathan Romney in Screen

* Rivers first worked with Jake Williams in “This is my Land” a short which I saw in the Bloomberg Space in 2008. I took my class of first-year undergrads to see it, they were captivated and abandoned all the other films in the group show to rewatch “This is my Land” several times.

©G. McIver 2012 all rights reserved


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