Blog: The mysterious worlds of Ben Rivers

By Saskia Monshouwer

“You see the cage, you can hear fluttering. You can make out the unmistakable sound of a beak being sharpened against the bars. But birds, no. / In one of those empty cages, I heard the most intense shrieking of parrots in my life. There were none to be seen, of course.”

Henri Micheaux

Cracking the Frame Presents screened two recent Ben Rivers films: The magnificent The Sky Trembles, the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers (2015) starring the Spanish actor and filmmaker Oliver Laxe, and There Is a Happy Land Further Awaay (2015), a film composed of images of Vanuatu, a pacific island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean. Both films premiered in 2015; both are courageous and intriguing. Multilayered films with a secular western artistic theme: Escapism and all the confusing, pleasurable and contradicting feelings, thoughts and behaviors accompanying it. The two mysterious and imposing films point in the direction of Utopia. An imaginary place that in Rivers’ films in the first place is an actual existing geographical environment. 

This is the case with both the crude and majestic Moroccan Atlas Mountains in The Sky Trembles and the archipelago of volcanic origin in There Is a Happy Land Further Awaay. Consisting of real rocks, waters, clouds and vegetation, and inhabited by people, all are marvelously captured by the phenomenal photography. “How courageous to make a 16mm film in these surroundings”, artist and filmmaker Lonnie van Brummelen whispers to me after the screening of The Sky Trembles. “It must have been difficult and heavy to take the camera into these mountains of the Atlas.” As a filmmaker these practices emerge in her imagination right away. The fact that Ben Rivers’ camera tracks film director Oliver Laxe, who is shooting his own film Las Mimosas on location in Morocco, only stresses her argument. The two filmmakers found each other in their love of film and Morocco. Laxe also made his first feature film Todos vós sodes capitáns (You All Are Captains, 2010) in this country. 

Directly following this establishment of the reality content of the films, a literary, phantasmal, philosophical doubt sets in. Vanuatu, inhabited by Melanesians, ‘discovered’ in 1774 by the famous English traveler Captain James Cook, is not just a part of the Portuguese and British colonial empires. For centuries the islands represented heaven on earth to the West. They played a big part in British, German and American fantasies and even now, people tend to think that on these remote and sunny islands, everything is always fine (accept for an occasional tropical storm). Rivers also shows another side of this tropical paradise; showing footage of derelict boats, drowned fragments of World War Two weaponry, and red hot lava seething in the depths of the active volcano alert one to the fragility of this faraway place. The rocky paths of the Moroccan mountains also contain the same kind of mixture of dreams, crudity and reality. An atmosphere in which animals talk.    

Ben Rivers puts it all together. The surroundings and environments, the postcolonial myths and above all several kinds of literature that form and stimulate his filmic talents. In There Is a Happy Land Further Awaay it is Henri Micheaux, poet, painter, traveler, who experimented with mescaline in the 1950s, and made poems and paintings while intoxicated. The soundtrack of the film is the voice of a woman haltingly rehearsing one of his poems. In the title Rivers paraphrases a Australian folksong composed around 1850. For The Sky Trembles the filmmaker was inspired by Paul Bowles’ brutal short story A Distant Episode (1947), complemented with the stories of Mohammed Mrabet that Paul Bowles translated. Harmless Poisons, Blameless Sins (2016) is a lively and interesting sound piece made by Rivers for BBC radio — on display until 22 May at CTFP’s workstation at puntWG. Here the stories of Mrabet are told in English alternated with original Moroccan sounds. They are funny, Beckett-like stories about smoking kif and nibbling hashish, letting you dis-appear in the voluptuous nothingness of ‘other worlds’.   

The feature film, installation and sound piece are Rivers’ tribute to Morocco, literature and film. Bringing together many fascinations in a few multilayered art pieces. “To make a film is to create a new world of several other films and images”, Rivers claims in an interview. And you can make an enormous string of references while looking at The Sky Trembles, starting with the first part of the film in which filmmaking is the subject: From François Truffaut to Federico Fellini’s Otto et Mezzo (Eight and a Half), from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky to Werner Herzog’s Fitzgeraldo. In her elaborate introduction at the film's screening at Rialto, professor Patricia Pisters mentions many, many more. 

But what I really admire in his films and what makes watching them a real adventure, are the intelligent and clever twists Rivers makes in his films, bringing very different and contradicting thoughts together in exciting wordless tracks. Referring to the making and meaning of film; the longing to travel and escape; the honesty to look at reality at the same time. As a swift Rivers dives from his rock, moves in the air, and travels for miles. Not able to land on the ground, because its wings are too large to take off again. But then, staying on these rocks, watching is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes dark, like in the last scene of The Sky Trembles: Once the film is ready you don’t know. You only know that the protagonist played by Oliver Laxe wears the tin-can suit the bandits forced on him. No oases in front of him anymore, no water, no date palms, no thuyas — only sand and sun.