Ben Rivers
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Ben Rivers
Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers talks to APEngine’s Gary Thomas about slasher movies and heading north. His show A World Rattled of Habit is at A Foundation in Liverpool until 17 October 2009, and he is in the group show An Entangled Bank
- Darwin & Edinburgh at Talbot Rice, Edinburgh, from
 24 October – 12 December 2009.

You studied fine art at Falmouth?

Yes. I started off making paintings and very quickly moved into making more sculptural work: models and installations. And then taking photos of the models so they became more like fragments of narratives. With the sculptures, installations and collages I became more interested with sequences and mini-narratives. Then it seemed an inevitable move into wanting to make films, add sounds and movement and time in a way that was kind of frustrated with the 3D work.

Were you encouraged to do that?

Not really no; Falmouth at that time was fairly traditional, broken up into painting, printmaking…my tutor did encourage me, but I was the only person making film in my year. I got a Super 8 camera – I think it was in my second year, so I would have been 19, and just started filming a few home movie things while on an exchange in Munster, just to get the hang of it. And then I shot an animation and it all came out black so that was the end of animation for me!

Came out black or avant-garde I think it’s called..

Well if I made it now, you know, I’d probably show it. But then I was crushed.

And were you looking at films – artists’ films?

Not really. I didn’t really know what they were. But I did start showing films — I started a film club so I was showing feature films – films that I had read about that I wanted to see. Lots of French new wave and the occasional horror movie. All sorts.

And did you move to Brighton straight after Falmouth?

Straight after.

And I first met you when you were running — it must have been shortly after you set up Brighton Cinematheque?

It was actually a couple of years after I left Falmouth, a couple of years in no-man’s-land, and then just through fluke of place and time met Michael Sippings and Adrian Shepherd who wanted to start a cinema as well. We were offered a space. So we started the cinema in 1996 and really, the programming was based around mainly what we wanted to see. A kind of hunger…it was very eclectic.

You said you weren’t looking at artists’ films in Falmouth – so, was that because you were never encumbered by that kind of history?

I think so – out of ignorance more than anything, because nobody had that kind of knowledge in Falmouth. Apart from Nick Collins who would come down occasionally, and who did introduce me to some kind of artists and experimental films.

And you were still making work yourself?

Yes, but it was very slow. In Brighton I wanted to make 16mm films and it took me a really long time to make one particular film; it took me about four years to make my first 16mm film. You know, I started it, didn’t like it, started again. It was a long process.

Was it a learning process?

It was – it was a good learning process! My private kind of film school. I wanted to have so much control over everything and as the years have gone on I’ve become less controlling in terms of what I start with. Like making storyboards and that kind of thing – feeling like you have to have the whole film in your head before you start to make it.

The way you make films now, you’re still completely in control aren’t you? In the sense that you’re the author and you physically make the work. But in the work that you’re perhaps best known for you obviously let go of some of that control in your approach. Because they’re about things other than yourself, they’re about other people.

They’re about other people and things that I can’t necessarily have any control over, at least not until a later stage. As I’ve become more confident with my filmmaking, I’ve been more confident to let things take their course during the filming process, the actual shooting, allowing for serendipity. I don’t really think of myself as at a distance. I am in control because I choose – as soon as you choose how to frame something then you’re in some ways controlling the situation and controlling how that person is represented. I spend quite a lot of time in those places, and I become quite immersed in that environment and with those people. I spark a relationship, and talk about the kind of film that I want to make, which isn’t a documentary about facts of their life. I feel I get quite close to them – and that I am present in the films, if that makes sense.

Yes, but there is a sense I think of neutrality, of not interfering. And so the characters remain quite elusive. Because you’re not trying to find out facts about them, but evoke something broader, about what the people you’re interested in represent.

Yes – I’d go along with that, to an extent. I’m not really interested in their personal histories necessarily. I usually try and find, when I first go somewhere, some kind of spark in the situation that is going to guide the film in some way. And then I feel the editing process is a lot more significant in the sense of the what the film actually becomes – that’s when things become much more controlling and much less to do with making a documentary – whatever that is.

Perhaps that’s because, while you follow certain rules of documentary – a respect for your subject – I don’t think we know much more about these people from the films, other than their very existence. There’s a kind of essence of humanity represented. I was thinking how the subjects are eccentrics but your films are, unlike Andrew Kötting, who is a sort of ‘English eccentric’ filmmaker. Your films are utterly not eccentric films, though the subjects are eccentric. Is that something that plays in the editing process? That’s what I meant about the not interfering, there’s a coolness about your approach.

There is a coolness. I’m heartless!

Well I like that!…

That is a lot to do with personality, my own quieter personality – when you think of Andrew, he is like the characters in his films, he’s wild and loud and all over the place!

I Know Where I'm Going (2009)

I Know Where I'm Going (2009)

But what do those people — what do your subjects represent to you?

I don’t even necessarily think they’re eccentric…

Well it’s a relative term isn’t it? A couple of them are explicitly remote from society.

That’s been the the hook or the beginnings. The catalysts for all of those portraits is that they are one step removed from the general populace. And it’s interesting to me why they would do that – their reasons for doing that. And the contradictions involved in that. They’re definitely not eco-warriors, and I’ve deliberately not gone to see people like that. I’m not interested in people who have got a very dogmatic message.

To me they’re much more complex characters. They’ve chosen to live separately in the wild but there are also problems of loneliness. And they’ve had to make this decision – wanting desperately to live in this kind of place, in this kind of environment. But they’re not misanthropic either … I like these contradictions.

It’s a romantic idyll, but in Ah, Liberty! there’s an adult making that choice for children, and while they aren’t exactly feral they are having a wild old time.

Of course – and that’s one of the things that I do as well, I’m exaggerating those things. This is what I meant to say about my neutrality you spoke about – it’s may not be apparent but I’m not so neutral while filming – I am introducing or encouraging elements that I want to exaggerate, like giving masks to the boys in Ah, Liberty!, which totally changes the dynamic of the film half-way through. That film doesn’t give the impression that they maybe go to school everyday..

Do they?

They do, yes. But after the first visit I said to the parents that I didn’t want them in the film, that I wanted the children to seem really wild, like they were up there alone perhaps, that I was going to exaggerate that. And they were fine with that – they thought it was funny. So that was good.

I think that’s a point where your approach departs from documentary – because you’re fictionalising or narrative-ising raw material – you’re transforming it into something which isn’t a story but isn’t a documentary either.

It’s somewhere in between. There have been plenty of examples of people who work in that in-between area but it’s always difficult to say exactly what it is. It’s closely aligned with daydreaming I think.

You were brought up in the rural West Country, and you went to art school…

As far away from London as possible.

Is your interest in the rural something that comes from all that?

I think it must be. I do feel very happy when I go to the wilderness, to the countryside, walking in the woods. And the series of portraits definitely began when I was thinking about this romantic idyll that I have in my mind. And trying to see how real it was and so then I, you know, go and find Jake…

You sort of interrogate it…

Yes – and as the films have gone on I think they’ve become less romantic and more questioning of that environment, and with more of a sense of underlying unease as well.

Well since you mention unease and being in the woods, your film Terror! is made of found footage clips of horror films with people in the woods.. getting slashed. It’s so completely different from your other films. Watching it, at first I comforted myself that you were making a film about horror films which wasn’t going to show the horror… but you don’t hold back and you — I mean there are clips from Driller Killer in it aren’t there?


I remember a drill going into a skull!

Ben: Yeah but that’s actually Lucio Fulci who’s much more graphic.

Why did you make Terror!?

It was something that I’d wanted to do for a really long time because that’s really how my excitement with film started – with horror movies. Living in this tiny village in Somerset, my friends and I used to go to this video shop, in the basement of the Methodist Church. There was this guy who wore a big sheepskin coat like Arthur Daley and we’d go in there, 12 or 13 years old, clearly not 18. And he’d bring out the latest VHS from under the counter… you know, “Hello boys, I’ve got I Spit On Your Grave” or Evil Dead or something like that. So that was a very important time for me, watching all these films. Terror! was in a way a thank you to all of that, and trying to have a look at what I loved about horror films, the impending sense of dread atmospheres and the way it’s such a kind of visceral… can be such a physical experience watching them. A love letter!

And you don’t really discriminate do you because you’ve got John Carpenter alongside Dario Argento alongside people the ‘civilised’ world has never…

Yes, there’re some really obscure ones in there and some well known ones, because it was a particular period, late 70′s, early 80′s.

..the video nasty era

Which this guy in the basement of the church had no problems with – lending us these pirate copies, which was great and terrifying at the same time. I’m glad you bought that up!

Hasn’t done you any harm!

No, well you don’t know my private life.

Put the knife down!

I forgot you went to see that, that was really fun at the ICA screening.

It was fun for the first five minutes!

When I first started putting it together I did think about making it just this unending tease. But then I realised that it wouldn’t work, that you needed that kind of pay off. In the same way that you always need it in a horror film but it had to be utterly over the top so that — you know so that I guess by the end it’s just this insane barrage.

There’s what Roman Polanski said -  “You have to show violence the way it is. if you don’t show it realistically, then that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people, then that’s obscenity.” Though I guess that does have its limits.

I Know Where I'm Going (2009)

I Know Where I'm Going (2009)

You’ve recently done a road movie..

That was quite nerve wracking to make because I decided to start off with just the destination and very little else. The destination and the title came together, so the film’s called I Know Where I’m Going, after the Powell and Pressburger film.  The destination was the Isle of Mull where they based the original film. I had a couple of meetings set up but I didn’t really know what was going to happen along the way. So I just hit the road with George Clark for about a month.

In a Vauxhall?

In a lovely brand new Vauxhall car that they lent me, and quite unsure about what I wanted to get. There was one person I really wanted to see and that was a geologist Jan Zalasiewicz,  who had written a book – The Earth After Us – about the earth in 100 million years time, and what traces there might be of human society in the strata of the earth – as if some other race at that time has geologists. He was the first person I saw and his voice is the only recurring voice throughout the film. He teaches at Leicester University. A really fantastic man – I never thought geology would be so exciting until I met him.

So along the way I also meet some of these people who live and work off the beaten track. And it’s somehow offset by Jan’s voice and what he’s talking about. They look a bit like they could be the last people in Britain, because all the other landscapes, all the shots of road, they’re just empty. There are no cars; the only cars you see are wrecked ruined cars. It’s got a kind of post-apocalyptic feel to it. I’ve been watching lots of post apocalyptic movies from the 70′s and 80′s…

On The Beach?

That rings a bell.

It’s the first post-apocalyptic movie that springs to my mind.

A Boy and His Dog, Night of the Comet, Letters from a Deadman, The Quiet Earth, The Seed of Man by Marco Ferreri who is amazing…

So the film in some ways might be a kind of endpoint, for the time being, for these portraits. Or at least they’re changing. I filmed men and women, but only men ended up in the film, and I think that’s kind of important. They’re even more from a distance than the individual portraits that I’ve made. The meetings are more fleeting – I would be driving and we’d stop at someone’s house and we’d just be there for a few hours or something, so it’s much less immersed.

How did you find the people?

Some by chance. I wanted to see an ethnologist, Thelma Rowell, and she was happy to talk but she didn’t really want to be in the film. She recommended Charlie Parker who lived down the road, so I went to see Charlie, and Charlie is in the film. I revisited Jake who’s in This Is My Land. There’s another Jake who is a real eccentric – that’s his job, Britain’s King of the Eccentrics apparently, but he’s at the end of his career.

So what’s next?

I’m taking the science fiction elements that were in I Know Where I’m Going and going further with that. I’m focusing on those post-apocalyptic themes for a piece I’m making for you [Animate Projects] and Picture This. It’s much more deliberately science fiction and it’s not focusing on characters, it’s focusing on island landscapes. If it all works out there’ll be narratives on the soundtrack.

What about the difference between showing your work in cinemas and festivals and showing it in galleries?

I’m excited about showing in both spaces and seeing how the work changes in both spaces. Now I’m showing more in the gallery I’m not going to stop showing in the cinema – it’s still important.

You don’t change the films themselves, do you – rather, you’ve adapted the way they’re shown.

I like the way that you can have more control over the space in a gallery than in a cinema. The way that the films are shown and what they’re shown with. I’m creating a very particular architectural environment that in some way mirrors the films. And I think it adds something and creates a different kind of experience for the audience.

The only other question I’ve got is about your admiration for Knut Hamsun. I read Hunger when I was a teenager – it features the most miserable protagonist who spends the entire book being hungry…

Licking his cupboard.

And he’s quite a disgusting character. Why does that book hold a special place in your heart!?

I don’t know! It’s actually less Hunger – although all of his characters are kind of similar. Pan and Mysteries are more my books, the ones that had a real effect on me. But again they’re completely socially dysfunctional characters, they mess up all the time. And it’s hilarious and tragic. I don’t think I’m socially dysfunctional! But maybe I am. Maybe it’s just a fear.

He’s from Norway..and I Know Where I’m Going is headed there a particular northern European kind of temperament that you empathise with?

I think it’s partly the space; the further north you go the more space there is, it’s less populated. The more chance there is of actually getting lost – of finding people who live and think differently to the way that I do.

And yet now you’ve just come back from Lanzarote?

A really strange place, it’s like another planet. Another planet with resorts on the edge. A lot of it looks very fake, manufactured, even the natural rocks look like they are made out of fibreglass been placed there. I loved it, and there are all these half-made resorts as well. There was obviously a boom and then they ran out of money, so there are half-finished bunches of buildings. All the buildings are white against this very arid browny, reddy, blacky landscape.

And in looking at science fiction – are there science fiction films that you’re thinking of – from that late 1970s?

I do like that period. I mean a lot of it would be considered maybe a little bit trashy, but I’ve always had a penchant for trash.

You can see Engine’s showcase of I Know Where I’m Going here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | Tagged with , , , , , , ,

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