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In Search of Utopia: Slowness and the Everyday in Two Years at Sea and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, 2011)


British artist Ben Rivers has been making 16mm films for more than a decade. His are intimate works, and not only because they are often hand-processed in his own kitchen sink. Somewhere between landscape, portraiture and ethnography, his films are generally referred to as documentaries, which is accurate if we go back to John Grierson’s definition of documentary as the “creative treatment of reality”. In fact, Rivers’ films inhabit a much more ambiguous space. Though their starting points are real places and real people, the term “documentary” is misleading.

Two Years at Sea (2011, pictured above), Rivers’ first feature film, could be described as a portrait of its protagonist Jake Williams. He is present, on or off screen in every scene of the film, from the first shot – walking in the snow, his back to the camera – to the last, sitting by an extinguishing fire until darkness closes on his face. In the course of 88 minutes we observe Jake as he goes about his daily chores: cutting trees, driving his car, making tea, having a shower, reading… We even see him sleep, but mostly we see him dream. Williams appears to lead a happy solitary existence in the Scottish wilderness, and although we never learn anything factual about him (not even his name), glimpses of old photographs suggest a past life. The title is never explained, making way for interpretation and speculation. Is he a modern-day Robison Crusoe? Halfway through the film, Jake floats about a lake in a homemade raft. The shot – one long take – lasts over seven minutes. Time is suspended. Everything goes still, except for Jake’s drifting boat. We enter a state of reverie: is he daydreaming of the sea? Real-life Jake did spend two years travelling the world as a sea merchant, which allowed him, upon his return, to buy the house where he has lived for the last 30 years. Two years at sea was the price for his freedom.

The scene with the raft is the longest shot in the film (almost matched by the closing shot of Jake sitting by the fire), and although not epically long, the average length of shots in Two Years at Sea is notably longer than those in most contemporary movies. Actions such as having a shower are filmed in their entirety. For Jonathan Romney (2010:43), such sequences “highlight the viewing process itself as a real-time experience in which, ideally, you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching”. This recalls what Geoff Dyer (2012) has written of the experience of watching Antonioni’s L’Avventura in a Paris cinema “every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, and an hour a year, and so on”.

This represents a clear break with Hollywood narrative filmmaking, where the dominant style is fragmentation and the average shot length (also known as ASL) in films such as The Bourne Supremacy (2004) has gone under 2 seconds. David Bordwell has written about the acceleration of editing in recent cinema in The Way Hollywood Tells It(2006) and Figures Traced in Light (2005). He argues that while the ASL was between 8 an 11 seconds before 1960, the 1990s saw the ASL shift to 2 to 8 seconds.

Long takes are not necessarily a distinctive feature of Rivers’ cinema. He has shot many of his films with an old Bolex wind-up camera, which can only offer a continuous shot of almost 30 seconds. He has compared the creation of his films to assembling a collage, the fragmentary nature of his short films being partly determined by the technology that he used to make them. Two Years at Sea is the culmination of a long process that has seen both his films getting longer and his shots getting longer too.

With this film and his subsequent feature A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013, co-directed with American filmmaker Ben Russell) Rivers has firmly inscribed his work in the tradition of what Michel Ciment categorised in 2003 as a “cinema of slowness”, among the likes of Bela Tarr, Lav Diaz or Lisandro Alonso. “Slow” cinema, also referred to as “contemplative” or “durational” can be understood as a result of the convergence between different representational modes – narrative and non-narrative, art and experimental, fiction and documentary – in contemporary cinema but its roots are to be found somewhere between Italian neorealism and the structural materialist concerns of the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde. On the surface, “slow” may appear as a pejorative term, a synonym for “boring”. Slow narratives are often accused of being plot-less. Writing for Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney (2010) has characterised slowness as a “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema“. But in today’s age of 24/7, slow cinema can be seen as representing a form of political resistance. The “slow” movement expands far beyond cinema (slow food, slow travel, slow cities, slow living) proposing a more human-centered alternative to today’s accelerated society. Vital and radical, filmic “slowness” stands for utopia in times of dystopia.

Matthew Flanagan (2012), who has written extensively on the “aesthetics of the slow”, outlines the following characteristics: emphasis upon extended duration, depiction of stillness and everydayness, employment of the long take as a structural device, a slow or undramatic form of narration (when narrative is present at all), and a predominantly realist representation. This article will attempt to examine the use of such “slow” procedures in Two Years at Sea and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Although many of these are also present in Ben Rivers’ short and medium-length works, the use of slow aesthetics is inevitably emphasised and hyperbolised in the long form.

Dailiness is both one of the main themes of Two Years at Sea, and a formal strategy that filmmaker Rivers deploys in complicity with his character and actor Jake Williams. Williams and Rivers, who met in 2005, had worked together previously on two short films This is My Land (2006) and I Know Where I’m Going (2009). In many ways, their collaboration is reminiscent of that of Robert Flaherty and Nanook in the 1922 film Nanook of the North.  In Two Years at Sea and This is My Land, which has in retrospect become a study for the former, Rivers and Williams filmed re-enactments of Williams’ quotidian occupations and together staged imaginary events. The most striking of these is when Jake wakes up from a nap to discover that his caravan has been transported to the top of a tree. This is almost a moment of magical realism, and the bluntest confirmation that we are not on conventional documentary ground. It could all be a dream, but Rivers and Williams are whimsically ambiguous, and the caravan is still up the tree later in the film.

As Rivers has said “Jake’s is fully aware of the camera, but does a very good job at seeming like he is not” (Rivers 2011). Jake Williams is not the object or subject of an observational anthropological documentary but the actor of a work of fiction which is inspired and informed by his person and way of living (as becomes apparent to anyone who has attended a screening of the film followed by a q&a with its protagonist). Whilst the character of Jake is a hermit, a social outcast; real-life Jake is an extremely sociable and congenial fellow. At the London premiere of the film in 2011, the audience was almost shocked to hear Jake talk after the screening. Jake never speaks in the film, except to mumble “chesty cough” as he examines a bottle of medicine. In all fairness, he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. As an audience we spend a lot of time in his company, which only makes his solitude more poignant. Little happens, nothing is explained (there is neither speech nor commentary), and yet Jake is rarely idle – although the purpose of his actions is not always clear to the spectator. Rivers’ camera puts almost as much emphasis on Jake as on the objects that inhabit his universe. “With a lot of my films over the years I’ve been interested in spaces and objects as a way to build a portrait of a person, an understanding of who they might be without that straightforward telling” says Rivers (Hattrick 2012)

A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, 2013)

Jake’s daily actions demonstrate the possibility of another way of living. Meeting Williams was actually a catalyst for Rivers’ cinema, setting him off to find others who, like Williams, have chosen to live outside society and who would become the subjects of later films such as Ah, Liberty! (2008). The inspiration of Jake’s freedom can also be felt in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a film which in some ways represents a modern quest for utopia.

Constructed as a triptych, the three parts of the film are connected by a nameless character played by musician Robert AA Lowe (better known as Lichens). Lowe is observed in three different situations: a commune on the Estonian island of Vormsi; living alone in a cabin in the Finnish wilderness (a solitary existence in nature that recalls Two Years at Sea); and playing a concert in Oslo as a member of a Black Metal band. Each part stands for a different answer to the question of the place of utopia and spirituality in contemporary society. In other words, “the place of uncertainty, of mystery, in an existence that has been overdetermined by understanding”, a question discussed by Russell and Rivers during the development of the film. The narrator in Rivers’ film Slow Action (2010) declares: “Everywhere new utopias are possible”. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness proposes three.

The contrast of these situations is echoed by the contrast in formal strategies that are put into play. Whereas in the first chapter the camera is mostly hand-held, allowing the viewer to identify as a participant in the life of the community, in the second part, shots are static (as in Two Years at Sea). Faced with stillness and solitude, the disembodied spectator withdraws to a contemplative state. Halfway through the second part (and the film), Lowe sits in a boat in the middle of a lake and, just as when Jake drifts in his raft, time stays still. It begins to rain but the camera keeps rolling, the shot lasting between four and five minutes. This long take is close – in terms of the stillness of the composition and the suspension of time – to the long takes in Two Years at Sea. It is however diametrically different to the long take that constitutes the entire third chapter of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Filmed with a Steadicam, the camera moves freely during the 30 minutes of this final shot. While this is the most extreme example of a long take in Rivers’ cinema, the long take is a recurrent figure in the work of Ben Russell. His recent River Rites (2011) reveals a masterful control of the single take in its complex choreography of ritualsof work and play along the Upper Suriname River.His first feature Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), which is composed of thirteen continuous shots, was also shot almost entirely using a 16mm Steadicam rig.

The long take is not the only aspect that brings us closer to Russell’s universe during the third part of the film. The ecstatic concert scene in A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness is evocative of his early work Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007), also shot during a concert, in this case a show by noise band Lightning Bolt. Whereas Black and White Trypps Number Three focuses on the audience and their reaction to the music, in A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness the camera wanders from the band to the audience and back to the band. It then follows Robert AA Lowe off the stage, into his dressing room and out into the Oslo night. The epicness of this shot, the hypnotism of the flashing lights and the exaltation of the music are contagious, transforming catharsis into a communal experience between film, filmmakers and viewer. The use of a long take also contributes towards making viewers feel they are present in the scene, the camera as a substitute for their eyes – and to transform a visual experience into a corporeal one.

Catharsis is also a form of truth as demonstrated by Jean Rouch’s trance-induced cinéma vérité. While the two previous parts of A Spell to Ward Off The Darknesspropose two radically opposed approaches to existence outside the rules of society, the third part offers utopia in the sense that it serves (in the words of Deleuze, 2005:166) to “reconnect man to what he sees and hears”. In his doctoral thesis, Mathew Flannagan (2012: 214) suggests “that slow cinema visibly embodies Gilles Deleuze’s conception of the time-image, in which time rises up to the surface of the screen to enable a restoration of the dislocated link between man and world in the post-war era.” In A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness, one of the female characters in the commune describes a moment where the physical and metaphysical are synched together. This is partly what the film attempts to do during its last segment.

A Spell to Ward Off The Darkness represents a fascinating blend of the formal strategies and working procedures of two distinct artists. It would be counterproductive to attempt to dissect the film and try to identify the individual styles of its two makers. Both Rivers and Russell have insisted in interviews and q&a sessions that all the decisions, both during the shoot and the postproduction, were taken collectively. Whilst the second part seems to bring us closer to Rivers’ territory both formally and thematically, and the trance-like quality of the concert recalls Russell’s previous work, the first part is perhaps the most unexpected and compelling because it incarnates the coming together of the two filmmakers and their visions.

The film begins with a 360° degree shot of a lake at an imprecise time between night and day. Almost six minutes long, the shot becomes a manifest of intentions that immediately takes us into the territory of slow cinema. This is followed by a shot of Lowe sitting by a fire, just as we left Jake Williams at the end of Two Years at Sea. Fire is a symbolic element and a recurrent figure in both films. Next, as the film cuts to a breakfast scene, we find ourselves immediately immersed in communal life. The presence of children is noticeable, and can be understood as a positive affirmation and celebration of life. Although landscape and place are important in both films, it is the human that is at the center of Rivers’ and Russell’s filmic preoccupations. Even when dealing with landscape, it is always in relation to the human. Children also bring spontaneity to the film – the little girl in the rain looks straight into the camera breaking the fourth wall, which not only accentuates the realism of the representation but also contributes to making the audience feel participant in the film.

The sensuous use of colour in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness represents a contrast of approach to Two Years at Sea, which is black & white, and serves to accentuate the sense of realism. Colour also helps to trigger haptic perception. In Two Years at Sea, the hand-processed black & white film stock has a particular quality of archival or found footage, heightened by the presence of the material qualities of celluloid film.

To go back to Flanagan’s characterisation of slow cinema, both films are distinguished, in different degrees, by their use of the long take, the emphasis upon stillness (both of the frame and of visual content), their realistic representation and their minimal narrative articulated around the everyday. Instead of plot, we are presented with glimpses of existence. In the first section of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the observation of daily life in the commune has a certain documentary quality. The freedom of camera movement, the casualness of the conversations, the everydayness of the activities depicted, all contribute to the sense of realism. In fact, the commune was partly set up for the film: although it was not profilmic, it became a true community in the course of filming. The commune is therefore both a reality and a fiction. And what is the difference?

Both films are constructions that make use of existing worlds and realities in order to create new ones, blurring the borders between documentary and fictional strategies. Rivers is interested in specific spaces, hermetic realms, those which also mirror his idea of cinema as a world that you go into. “None of the films are representations of something else. They’re worlds unto themselves.” (Lim 2012)

Whilst the triptych structure in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is very tightly articulated, Two Years at Sea appears more spontaneous in execution, but is also the culmination of a long observation process.  Although both are the result of extended periods of gestation, Two Years at Sea is very much a one-man film, a film that was conceived and carried out in a minor key. In A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness the carefully planned transitions between the three parts, the overall consistency of its formal strategies and conceptual intentions are possibly the result of its collaborative nature, but also reflect the ambition of the project, with the involvement of producers, financing from several countries and participation in pitching forums. Two Years at Sea Sea asserts Rivers’ position as a key practitioner of ‘slow cinema’, but with A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness Rivers and Russell radically challenge the widespread conception of slowness, proving the diversity and nebulousness of this so-called genre.

References :

Dyer, Geoff 2012. Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room. Vintage: London.

Bordwell, David 2005. Figures Traced in Light. Berkeley/London/Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bordwell, David 2006. The Way Hollywood Tells It. Berkeley/London/Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles 2005 Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Continuum.

Hattrick, Alice, 2012. Interview with Ben Rivers, The White Review [online] Available at

Flanagan, Matthew 2012 : ‘Slow Cinema’: Temporality and Style in Contemporary Art and Experimental Film. PhD Thesis: University of Exeter.

Flanagan, Matthew 2008. “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema.” 16:9 [online] Available at

Lim, Dennis 2012, “Dreams of Utopia, Dreams of Solitude”, New York Times, 5 October 2012 [online] Available at

Rivers, Ben 2011. “Two Years at Sea: Production Stills”, Experimenta Weekend[online] Available at…

Romney, Jonathan 2010. “In Search of Lost Time”, Sight and Sound 20.2 : 43-44.