Ben Rivers' stunning portrait of life in the wilderness is a remarkably lyrical and ideologically cohesive doc-fiction hybrid.
When awarded the main jury prize at the CPH:Dox (Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival), Ben Rivers’ first feature, Two Years at Sea, was cited for its ‘convincing depiction of the euphoric feeling of being immersed in an elemental environment.’ It’s a succinct summation of what it’s like to watch this portrait of a man living in cheerful hermitage.
Rivers prefers for viewers to find out what they’ve been watching after the screening, and it doesn’t matter much going in if you know that the sole human figure is Jake Williams, who lives deep in a forest near Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Five years ago, Williams was the subject of Rivers’ short, This is My Land, offering bird-feeding tips while bouncing around his property and radiating goodwill before sending viewers off with, "Cheerio then, all the best."
In Two Years at Sea, Williams is cooperatively mute, heard only in occasional indecipherable mumbling. His living space is distinctive Rivers terrain: he might be living in Tarkovsky’s ‘Zone’ from Stalker, inhabiting a natural landscape where any manmade objects are so decayed that the inorganic becomes a part of the scenery.
This is the environment of 2008’s Ah, Liberty!, where a rusting bathtub outside overflows with water in a similarly decaying rural retreat, or 2011’s Sack Barrow, in which an electroplate factory in its last days has tubs covered with mineral accretions closer to organic, cancerous-looking growths than mere industrial byproducts.
All the sounds heard in Two Years at Sea are only what Williams wants to expose himself to, aside from some unseen grazing sheep heard over a hill. Going to work while the camp’s loudspeakers blast sitar music, he’s a junk-happy agrarian, living semi-off-the-land. Rivers’ work has been compared by writer Michael Sicinski to British documentary stalwart Humphrey Jennings, and there’s a never-too-cosy sense of Williams as a pragmatic eccentric preserving a self-consciously marginal existence with deep cultural roots.
The first image of Ah, Liberty! isn’t even a shot, but instead glaring white header film with the occasional speck and the faint sound of a projector. There’s similar sport to be had in Two Years at Sea when trying to determine what’s the result of deliberate processing and what’s actually rain/snow/elemental.
'Smoke Gets in your Eyes' is heard playing on the factory floor in Sack Barrow’s final minutes, and it could serve as Rivers’ motto. Day or night, smoke always provides an opportunity for textural contrast: the black cat seen in This is My Land returns to sit quietly here, watching steam rise as its ears occasionally twitch. In Rivers’ hand-processed 16mm, lightning and thunder is predicted by the film’s sudden whitening, a pre-storm celluloid crackle.
This is My Land is a double-edged title: this space is both Williams’ property and cultural continuation. Two Years at Sea showcases a private, unseen-except-for-just-this-once lifestyle that nonetheless has a polemical point. The citizens of Ah, Liberty! are driven to their outpost by poverty; Williams is a pioneer of voluntarily getting there first.
An exciting British artist/filmmaker delivers his first feature and it arrives with festival garlands a-plenty.
A remarkably lyrical and ideologically cohesive doc-fiction hybrid.
Rivers’ next longform effort can’t arrive soon enough.