A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS is the love child of two quite different filmmakersone British, one Americanwho have come to prominence in recent years in the experimental-film world for idiosyncratic bodies of work, which, while stylistically distinct, have revealed common thematic interests. Ben Rivers, who lives and works in London, is perhaps best known for his meditative portraits of alternative ways of living, from the sylvan hermitage of his feature Two Years at Sea to the postapocalyptic island ecosystems of his science-fiction film Slow Action (both 2011). In sharp contrast, Ben Russell, a former Chicagoan who has until recently split his time between Paris, Finland, and Suriname (the setting of many of his films), favors an intensely visceral and disorienting cinematic mode he terms “psychedelic ethnography,” which he pursued in a series of short films entitled Trypps 1–7 (2005–10) and in a feature film, Let Each One Go Where He May (2009).
Combining methods and ideas that each has explored in his individual efforts, hybridizing documentary, avant-garde, and narrative forms, the feature-length A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a three-part odyssey in search of a better present. The film’s distinct sectionsset, respectively, in the sunny idyll of an ad hoc Estonian commune, in the doomy solitude of a remote Finnish forest, and in the thunderous pitch black of a cramped Oslo heavy-metal cluball feature the same silent protagonist, portrayed by Chicago multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who blends into each of the disparate scenarios with ease, drifting from one possibility to the next.
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which will appear this month at film festivals in Thessaloníki, Turin, and Milan, enjoyed its world premiere this past August at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where it was describedpresumably under the filmmakers’ imprimaturas “a radical proposition for the creation of utopia in the present.”
BEN RUSSELL: To paraphrase Godard, one way to think about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is that it is a film with a beginning, a middle, and an endbut not necessarily in that order. We were trying to resist creating a directed reading, as in: Robert [Aiki Aubrey Lowe] is in a band, he joins a commune, and then he lives on his own in the woods. To the extent that the film is about utopia, A Spell comes down to thinking about happiness as a future of possibilities.
One of the participants in the Estonian commune, Tuomo Tuovinen, said something that stuck with us but didn’t quite make it into the filmthat utopia can only happen in the present. This struck us as a pretty good way of understanding not just the structure of the film, but cinema itself and what cinema’s utopian possibilities might be. It’s all about the present, about presence.
BEN RIVERS: We never conceived of A Spell as a linear narrative but rather as three discrete moments that could be happening at the same time or in any order. We talked about time quite a lot from the very beginning. The film is partly about the experience of time and cinema time, and that gets to the heart of how these three different sequences relate.
To start with, we chose a more familiar editing strategy for the commune section, to create the sense of time passing in a fairly linear fashion over a couple of weeks. When we arrive in the Finnish woods in the second section, we want the viewer to be much more conscious of the passage of time, to feel that this experience in the natural world is taking place over a matter of months or even over the course of seasons. The final segmentthe black-metal concertis an “extended moment,” and more than a few people have remarked that this is the place in the film where they actually lose their sense of time altogether.
RUSSELL: Our original structural idea was to make each section exactly the same length, but since time is a false construct, this seemed like a false idea. We decided to focus instead on the relative experience of time, which again is the experience of cinema, a time that is not initially yours but that quickly becomes yours. Cinema time is time experienced, and the utopian time of the black-metal section, which is embodied and phenomenological, is a time that is so immediate and so visceral that it becomes actual, moving at the same time as us and moving us with it.
The solitude sectionwhich includes a five- or six-minute shot of Robert fishing in the middle of a lakeaspires to be closer to glacier time, or mountain time, or tree timeit is a passage that has a much longer record, a much longer register. Nature is a time that has to be felt.
For us, the commune section always seemed a lot longer because there are more edits and there is more stuff happening; there is constant movement.The trick was to use cinema not only to produce glacial time and embodied time, but also to produce social timeto depict a temporal experience in which the time of the individual could resonate. The movement in this sequence is continuous, producing the collective space as a series of experiences in which you are constantly asked to locate the individual within the communal.
RIVERS: Our idea of utopia may reside in the individual, but it is always the individual in relationship to others, in relation to society and community. Even if you decide to take yourself away from society and live in solitude, you’re still defining your life in relation to society and community.
RUSSELL: In nature, your idea of self potentially expands into a self that includes animal. You become something otheryou become mushroom or you become log.
RIVERS: This is one of the reasons why, in the second part of the film, we wanted Robert to recede, allowing us to give equal measure to the mushrooms and the lichen and the human. There’s no hierarchyno one thing is better than another.
Robert wouldn’t mind us saying this, but throughout the film he was our vehicle. We collaborated with him as artists but we also used him, as directors, to provide a through line for the experience of these three sustained moments.
RUSSELL: We thought a lot about [Robert] Bresson’s idea of models. Robert’s character is a bit more developed than this particular idea, but there certainly is a way in which his on-screen presence creates a space for the viewer to occupy, to move through.
As for the question of collaboration, Ben and I came up with everything together. Everything was a collaboration. And while there are certainly moves from our own films that are evident in A Spell, it’s always a little bit disappointing when a critic or an audience claims that “ah, yes, this is Ben Rivers’s section”you know, because he likes moss and forests
RIVERS: But I also really like black metal.
RUSSELL: I came to black metal through noise music and started listening to mostly American black-metal bands just a few years ago. Even though the third part of our film was shot in Norway, two members of the band are directly out of the American scene: Hunter Hunt-Hendrix from Liturgy and Nick McMaster from Krallice. We wanted to connect with the Norwegian roots of black metal while simultaneously thinking about its present and its future. We also didn’t want to allow any of its neo-Nazi supporters to find a place in our film, and it was important to create a band that resisted any idea of racial puritybut it wasn’t so important that our main character was played by a black man or a man who looks black, but that he was played by somebody who didn’t look like he was from
RIVERS: Scandinavia. Or really just from northern Europe. But it was important to stick to black metal specifically rather than any other kind of metal, or something totally different, like trance music, because black metal has a very specific origin. It was born out of the landscape of northern Europe and has a very particular relationship to the pre-Christian, the pagan, and the image of the sublime.
RUSSELL: It has really legitimate spiritual themes that you don’t find in any other contemporary European, or even Western, popular music. Everything else, like rave music, has a much more syncretic relationship to culture. Black metal, for all of its serious problems, comes out of a worldview that is essentially pagana belief system that is directly connected to all of the things that happen in our film.
RIVERS: This is true even in the commune, though this space may be the least apparently connected. We filmed this part over a few weeks on an Estonian island, in a compound run by a seventy-year-old shaman. You can hear his drums over the fire in the beginning.
We always talk about the importance of the experience of filmmaking for our practices, that this is one of the reasons why we make filmsto spend time with people that we really like and to have experiences that are meaningful. It took a lot of looking around, searching, and hard work to arrive at that situation on the commune, and it was perfect when we did. In some way, one of the most important outcomes of making A Spell is that we’re both now thinking about the very real possibility of living collectively.
RUSSELL: It’s so easy to discredit that sort of collective endeavor out of hand, so easy to say that these people are hippie idealists, that they are full of shit. I mean, these people, any people who are choosing to live collectively. It’s a sad legacy to inherityou know, to find ourselves in a moment defined by so much
RUSSELL: Yeah, the cynical relationship to possibility. We had a really difficult time editing the commune sequence because at first we were trying to reflect or represent our experience with a group of people that we really care about. It took us a while to realize that that was in fact the wrong way to go about itthat cinema, as far as we understand it as intellectuals and as makers, is not the space of representation. It is not the space of documentation. It is a space of reconstruction.
We had to build something else out of that experience, and it took us a while to arrive at the film in its final form. It may take some time for us to know exactly what it is that we’ve made, but I know that we’ve done well by our collaborators and by our own experience of filmmaking. We’ve created an entirely new worldand this is the essence of cinema. This is utopia.