Noted experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell have a lot more in common besides sharing a first name. Their respective oeuvres are filled with stylistically unique but philosophically parallel attempts at a new sort of ethnographic filmmaking. Their films consider both the impenetrability of personal experience and the transcendent possibilities of a shared experience, mining a phenomenological cross-section of bodies in space and minds in motion that’s resistant to presumptive language. As much as they have in common, however, Rivers and Russell also diverge in important ways. In his Trypp series, Russell displays an engagement with the outside world, of man-made systems and societal concepts, whereas Rivers’s films and the subjects therein are prone to inwardness and solitude, as evident in his breathtaking Two Years at Sea, a documentary masterpiece shot on ultra-grainy 16mm that subverts the customs of ethnography by offering a lyrical and occasionally phantasmagoric rumination on late capitalism.
In spite of their stylistic idiosyncrasies, both filmmakers strive to reach beyond basic filmic semiology in search of a sort of transcendental “realism,” a synthesis of modern ethnography and materialist aesthetics — aesthetics that permit film’s physical attributes (grain, lens flares) their due import. Their collaborative feature, the experimental documentary A Spell to Ward of the Darkness, is a fascinating blend of their respective methods that simultaneously honors their individuality. The film’s meticulous three-part structure feels somewhat rigid and predetermined compared to the more exploratory nature of their other work, but things gradually open up as we follow a nameless character (Robert A.A. Lowe) as he hangs around a neo-hippie Estonian commune, trudges alone through some remote Finnish wilderness, and fronts a black metal band in a dark and dingy rock club in Oslo.
a fascinating blend of Ben Rivers’s and Ben Russell’s respective methods that simultaneously honors their individuality
The first part of the film is both the most conventional and the hardest to permeate, if only because the filmmakers never settle on a point of entry for the viewer. The jumpy camera hastily follows a dozen or so individuals living together, yet also in solitude, on an island commune, and their interpersonal dynamics, seen in group shower sessions and trips to the beach, sometimes feel frivolous, if only because they appear in constant competition to one-up one another with half-formed philosophical decrees. (One of them refers to parties as “temporary autonomous zones,” whatever that means.) The commune sequence doesn’t fully make sense until the middle section, which shows Lowe wandering the woods alone, his solitude a counterbalance to his previously communal reality. Form follows function as the camera settles and focuses on Lowe, whose presence deepens with his increased engagement with his surroundings. The 16mm film grain, vivid and sepia-toned in the previous section, becomes darker and more somber here, a subtly emotional shift that signifies much but betrays little.
Appropriately enough, the third installment of A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is the one that brings everything into focus. Now the leader of a black metal band, Lowe is on stage in a dark room playing loud, aurally antagonistic music — and yet, paradoxically, this is easily the most serene sequence in the film, a transformative recording of sound colliding with space colliding with bodies. Rivers and Russell slowly move the camera from one band member to the next, and we see how even the tiniest movement shifts the soundscape. These sonic cues inform a soothing sensory experience, one that speaks to the “spell” to which the title alludes. As the camera traverses the stage, the directors consider what kind of spell the band might be conjuring, or perhaps what kind of spell might be coming over them.
One could argue that each segment deserves its own full-fledged exploration, but doing so would negate the film’s naturally narrativized transgression from societal (commune) to solitary (forest) to interpersonal diegetic transcendence (concert). The thread is imperative to understanding the film as a whole. It’s the central journey that pits Lowe in multiple scenarios (and realities, and lives) across time and space, and illustrates the filmmakers’ mutual interest in normalizing seemingly extreme existences. It also communicates the film’s key thesis, that people are naturally alterable species capable of deep transformation, and the “darkness” will find us when that’s no longer the case.