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Ben Rivers: ‘Documentary is a deceptive genre’

Ben Rivers with his subject Jake...

The director of Two Years at Sea on writing, shooting, editing and developing his films by hand, and screening Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls…

Ben Rivers is feeling feverish when he speaks to movieScope from his home in Bethnal Green. “I’m in a bit of a haze, I haven’t eaten for two days,” he says after picking up a bug travelling home from Ambulante festival, Mexico.

But there’s no time for convalescing; Rivers’ debut feature Two Years at Sea is in UK screens.

A mesmerising quasi-documentary shot on grainy, 16mm black and white film, it follows the day-to-day life of Jake Williams, a middle-aged man who lives an isolated existence in a remote Scottish forest. He talks to movieScope’s Jamie Dunn…

You featured Jake Williams in This Is My Land. Why did you want to return to him for your first feature-length film?

I like him as a human being – I thought he had a lot to offer. This is My Land was made in 2006 and my films have changed a bit since then. It was quite a fragmented film – only fifteen-minutes – and I was just observing him, I didn’t really ask him to do anything.

When I got the chance to make a feature I had all sorts of other ideas and people in mind but I kept thinking about going back to Jake; I felt like I could do more there. Plus we know each other pretty well, I’d stayed in touch with him since the first film and I knew he’d be up for it. I knew that he would be happy with me exaggerating parts of his life.

What kind of life were you trying to capture?

I wanted to show somebody living in complete solitude, and to explore that person’s relationship with the landscape and the space that they had chosen to put themselves in. In a way that’s the fiction, because even though Jake does live in those woods on his own, he does also have friends who visit and he’s very personable. It’s like any documentary; you’re choosing what to frame in and what to frame out. It’s quite a deceptive genre; I’ve tried to make it clear that this is just one way of looking at Jake’s life.

You seem extremely self-sufficient as a filmmaker, given that you write, shoot and edit all your films, as well as develop them by hand. Do you feel an affinity with Jake’s independence?

There’s definitely a mutual attraction in that I’ve always liked the idea of being as independent as possible and trying to make films outside that industrial scale.

Much as I like those films, I just don’t think that they are the kind of films that I was meant to make. When I come across people like Jake and other folk I’ve made films about over the last few years, people who are sort of independent, inventive and have created these worlds which may be idiosyncratic and very much their own – not completely self-sustaining but almost – I want to put them on film. That’s kind of mirrored in the way I make films and that just adds another level.

Ben Rivers shoots on CinemaScope and develops his film by hand...

Your grainy, black and white cinematography seems to mirror your subjects, who live on the margins of society, and belong to analogue worlds. Do your subjects inform the form of your films, or are you attracted to these subjects because they speak to your particular aesthetic sensibilities?

It’s the chicken and egg situation…I’m not sure.

For example, if you were to make a film in an urban environment, would you go for a more polished visual style, or use HD even?

I’m quite attached to using film; it’s the medium I’ve always used so I know it really well. The two things developed alongside each other: when I was finding my way, the subjects started to appear and grow, so they sort of worked hand-in-hand, especially with Jake.

This Is My Land was the first film I made that approached anything like a documentary; it was the first time I had gone somewhere and had no idea what I was going to do. I just shot.

I was a lot freer with all the hand processing – I let the celluloid keep its watermarks and stuff like that – but the form and the subject definitely arrived together. Maybe at some point I will shoot in HD if the right subject comes along.

You used to co-programme the Brighton Cinematheque with Michael Sipping. If you were still doing that, what films would you screen with Two Years at Sea to compliment it?

Our programming was just all over the place. We wanted to show everything, all kinds of cinema without any hierarchy – that was the philosophy. If we were showing Two Years at Sea, we’d probably show some experimental short and, I don’t know… some Paul Verhoeven, maybe.

A Showgirls and Two Years at Sea double bill…

Why not? You could have some interesting things happening there. I’d love to see Showgirls juxtaposed with Jake’s world.

Two Years at Sea was commissioned and produced by FLAMIN Productions, Film London’s development scheme for UK based artist filmmakers. Ben Rivers is one of the curators at the Lux/ ICA Biennial of Moving Images, 24 – 27 May. 

It’s in cinemas nationwide from May 4. 

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