Ben Rivers and the Abolition of Time

in 64th Locarno International Film Festival

by Neil Young

At the time of writing (August 27th, 2011) the 68th Venice Film Festival is just a few days away, and among the films competing for the Golden Lion are two by English directors — Steve McQueen’s Shame and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights — who have earned worldwide acclaim for the previous films (Hunger and Fish Tank respectively.) But for some visitors the most anticipated and significant British entrant in the entire festival is tucked away in its closing days, in the Orrizonti sidebar dedicated to challenging, often experimental works.

This is Two Years at Sea, the first feature-length film by Ben Rivers — born in Somerset in 1972, and now based in London. Rivers, who prefers to work with 16mm, often in monochrome, has since 2003 been steadily and quietly amassing a distinctive remarkable oeuvre comprising short and medium-length works, with a particular interest in marginal places and marginalised individuals. Many festivals and galleries around the world have showcased the likes of The Old Dark House (2003), Origin of the Species (2006) and I Know Where I’m Going (2009), films notable for their exquisitely close attention to atmosphere, landscape, and the interaction between man-made and organic, between the ‘made’ and the ‘found’.

Two Years at Sea is a portrait of Jake Williams, previously the subject of Rivers’ 14-minute short This Is My Land (2006), which he describes on his website thus: A hand-processed portrait of Jake Williams — who lives alone within miles of forest in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Jake always has many jobs on at any one time, finds a use for everything, is an expert mandolin player, and has compost heaps going back many years. He has a different sense of time to most people in the 21st Century… It struck me straight away that there were parallels between our ways of working — I have tried to be as self-reliant as possible and be apart from the idea of industry.”

Earlier this year his 45-minute Slow Action — a forensic anthropological study of imaginary islands that plays like some dream collaboration between Patrick Keiller, Stanislaw Lem and Robert Flaherty – was among the most admired world premieres at the Rotterdam Film Festival. And the tireless Rivers also contributed one of the few genuine highlights and discoveries to the 64th Locarno Film Festival, via his 21-minute Sack Barrow which was screened in the ‘Leopards of Tomorrow: Artists’s Shorts’ section.

While Rivers is the antithesis of the film-making industry (one reason why his name is less well-known, even among cinephiles, than that of McQueen and Arnold), ‘industry’ itself, in the wider sense, and specifically in relation to the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, is a running theme in many of his films (this making him a trans-Atlantic cousin to the likes of James Benning and Sharon Lockhart.)

This is most vividly and directly the case with relation to Sack Barrow, a sensitively enigmatic study of a factory identified in the closing credits as ‘Servex Ltd, 1931-2010’. That is the sole information thus imparted about a workplace somehow adrift in time — specific chronological signifiers are thin on the ground (we hear a snatch of Burt Bacharach’s ‘The Look of Love’ playing on a shop-floor radio), in a film which often charmingly exudes the quotidian, moribund air of educational 1970s documentaries made for schoolchildren.

But this being a Ben Rivers film, there are several quietly offbeat touches which endow the grubby factory-floor universe (yellowing ‘nudie’ pin-ups abound on many vertical surfaces) with an eerie other-worldliness. His camera admiringly examines the mushroomy mineral encrustations that have accumulated on the sides of an ancient vat; at other times the screen is filled with a textured block of colour, perhaps a sickly yellow or a cetacean blue. In the third of Sack Barrow’s three sections, a lisping female French-accented voice reads extracts from Herbert Read’s fantastical (and tripartite) 1934 novel The Green Child: “water had no sooner closed over them than it seemed to be sucked away from their bodies, to curve upwards at their feet, to arch over their heads, until it formed a perfect spheroid… Time and its anguish were abolished.”

What this has to do with Servex Ltd — an electroplating firm in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, established to “provide employment for limbless and disabled ex-servicemen” — and which closed shortly after Rivers’ visit in June 2010, is up to the viewer to decide. But after the festival I contacted Rivers to seek a little elucidation, and (on August 21st 2011) he was gracious enough to e-mail me some illuminating responses…

Neil Young: I was surprised to discover that Locarno’s showings of Sack Barrow were all on digital rather than 16mm. What is your take on this? Do you prefer the film to be screened from 16mm? I have been reading your comments to Aesthetica magazine* where you say “I really don’t feel part of a debate between film and digital” but this seems to refer more to the production of the film than its exhibition.

Ben Rivers: I do prefer to show on 16mm, particularly as this print is so gorgeous, but sometimes it is just not possible — many cinemas have replaced the 16mm projector for the digital projector and there is not a window free in the booth. Besides which digital projection has improved enormously of late, so if the scan of the film is good the projection seems to retain a great deal of the qualities of the original film. For as long as I can I will be shooting on film though, it suits me and my subjects, which do not seem to be mirrored so well by the ultra clean and perfect images of the new digital cameras. What I mean about not being part of the debate is that I am just uninterested in people who argue one way is better than the other — I like the idea that there is choice, and a filmmaker chooses their medium depending on what is right for their work — unfortunately the choices are being narrowed down by big corporations.

NY: I understand that the film screened first at the Hayward Gallery — is this correct? At the Hayward (or elsewhere), was the film screened with supplementary information (about Servex, for example)? Or do you prefer that viewers of Sack Barrow uncover such details thanks to their own efforts after seeing film?

BR: It screened in Art Basel first, then simultaneously at the Hayward and The Changing Room in Stirling, Scotland (who commissioned the film). There was perhaps a little bit more information at the galleries, though I preferred people to look at this info afterwards. I like the idea that people watch the film and don’t know exactly what is going on, there’s all this strange activity and vats with who knows what’s in them, and there’s a real sense of some alchemy happening. If you explain to much then it becomes too specifically ‘about’ something — I prefer to leave things more open for the audience. That’s why I don’t call my films documentaries, because now that word has too many preconceived ideas attached to it.

NY: When watching the film in Locarno, I puzzled over the meaning of the title (I thought it might be an angry piece of graffiti, urging that Mr/Mrs/Ms Barrow be sacked), then only much later did I learn that a Sack Barrow is a type of ‘hand truck’. What was the motivation behind your choice of title?

BR: I was the same — I filmed that sign because I liked the sound of it but had no idea what it meant — I guess it might only be know to people who work in places that use hand trucks. So I chose to use it again for its ambiguity and just the way it sounded — though the fact that it is a piece of machinery that involves a person physically moving things around a work space seems appropriate too.