Time seems to have inverted: last year saw the release of British artist Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, a feature film that appears to be a behind-the-scenes record of the production of Spanish director Oliver Laxe’s second film, Mimosas, in Morocco. But soon The Sky Trembles turns into something else, its patchwork-colored landscapes drawing Laxe off his own film set and on a stripped-down journey through the desert. Kidnapped and covered in tin armor, Laxe goes through an allegorical rite of passage inspired by the writing of Paul Bowles and reminiscent of how, in his feature debut, 2010’s marvelous You Are All Captains, the young director is also replaced from his own film and which seems to get along just fine without him.
This year we finally see Mimosas, the film whose production we spied in The Sky Trembles. Ben Rivers’ unorthodox docu-fiction hybrid is now no longer its own film, but a kind of cinematic prediction that presaged, foresaw and calls forth Mimosas. Laxe’s new film, much-anticipated after his lyrical and tenderly self-aware mixed-form debut, is not so different from the film which was made inside it, a film that, in a simple but strange fact, predates it. Mimosas, too, is a desert allegory; and it, too, folds two forms indistinguishably within itself. First, set some indeterminate time in the past, we see a band of travelers in the Moroccan desert trying to cross from one place to another, led by a sheikh and taking along with them two scoundrels. En route the sheikh dies, and while most of the caravan dissolves, the two men, previously contemplating robbing the group, have a change of heart and decide to take his body on an arduous path in an attempt to bury the man in its rightful home.
The scoundrels' path quickly meets Mimosas’s second thread, following a third man (Shakib Ben Omar, who replaced Laxe as a director in You Are All Captains), introduced in modern times as an incompetent miscreant trying to secure a gig as a taxi driver and spouting religious dogma. He is given a job not as a cabbie but rather is instructed to help escort the caravan on its journey, and thus, without any magic but that of cinema, his world and that of the desert thieves meet, and the three, along with the sheikh's body, travel on.
Structured in chapters based on Sufi prayer positions (bowing, standing, prostrating), the film's procession through the rugged landscape isn’t presented so much as an ordeal but rather as a low-key phantasmagorical journey. The spiritual or physical challenge for all three men—and an eventual young woman who joins—is in fact remarkably muted. The warmth imbued from the celluloid photography—never looking for the picturesque or pretty, yet always thrumming with an undercurrent of energy and beauty—and the dubbing of many voices and sounds turns the men's half-acknowledged pilgrimage into a dream—but an unexpectedly lucid one.
This unusual clarity and the anecdotal, unpretentious nature of the story's bare, quiet movements admittedly had me struggling for the source of the film's inner purpose, as I found myself a bit stranded in the abstraction of an empty landscape with few signposts. Quite possibly, Mimosas may be subtly playing off of cultural or literary traditions and sources lost on me, not being familiar with the Sufi religion or the tales of the region. It was a struggle that I also had with Ben Rivers’ beautiful film, which made me, as a viewer, feel like a wanderer myself, looking for an oasis or escape to something concrete. It could very well be that watching this alluring but strange new film back-to-back with its British forbearer, The Sky Trembles, is the ideal experience. That film had the foresight to send Mimosas’s director on his own difficult path of ambiguous religiosity, and thus when combined with Oliver Laxe's new film, the duo may give way to an ideal experience of mirrored, refracted and amplified tales of desert pathmaking and the search for spiritual equilibrium.
NOTEBOOK: Since I saw it first, can you tell me about your experience working with Ben Rivers on The Sky Trembles?
OLIVER LAXE: It was a very beautiful experience. It was very intense. I’m very proud of myself. I don’t have any fears to say that. Because it’s not easy to allow a filmmaker that you admire, that is a good filmmaker, to be in your set, which you’ve negotiated with your producers for five years. To be in this set, with your actors, a filmmaker who is probably going to make a more beautiful film than yours. It’s not easy to allow that. Ask filmmakers. I don’t think they would let Ben do this movie. But it was a good challenge for me in two ways, because my ego was telling me “it is mine, that’s my actors.” But, first, nothing belongs to me, nothing is mine; and, second, if I’m not able to capture the beauty of these places, Ben will do it. We are submitted to the beauty and to the service. So it’s beautiful to fight against my ego and to allow Ben to be there—all that you give to life, life gives back to you. And, you know, our friendship grows, I don’t know, it’s beautiful, it’s learning.
NOTEBOOK: On your first film and on Ben’s film, you’re on your set, you’re a filmmaker, and then you’re removed from the set, you’re removed as the director. I wonder what your experience is now, on your second feature, as a director, your relationship to directing?
LAXE: Yes, there were three or four times in the movie where I felt it was like the Titanic. It was a mess. People were in this shed in the mountains, thinking things like “wow, poor guy,” “this is going to be a mess,” “this is probably the last movie he’s going to make.” I really had this feeling of, “wow.” I had the chance of making the movie I wanted to do, because I did it. You know, it’s not easy to produce a movie made in the mountains. My producers are crazy and loved it enough to do that. Of course, I don’t worship the god of cinema. For me cinema is not an end. It’s a tool for discovery. So, I was telling myself, I was at the point of telling myself that, “okay, this is a disaster, but I deserve it. It’s going to make me grow. I need this splat in the face. I deserve it and it’s a good thing for me.” I arrived at a point of abandonment, of submission of what was on my way, which is the same thing as the character: he accepts why it isn’t his way, because we know that creation, reality, is perfect. Everything is perfect. It’s on his place. It’s well done. So, even an obstacle, or a tragic thing, is a positive thing. Is just that we don’t have the distance to read that; and we have the anxiety that we all think that this material world exists. We have these fears, these “ego” fears. But, with distance we can understand that this is the best thing for oneself. It’s always a gift.
NOTEBOOK: What you say reflects my experience of your film. The film feels very free and open. Maybe you had an elaborate script and you followed it, or maybe you showed up and you let the course of the landscapes and the way the production worked change and morph the film as you did it.
LAXE: I think that this is the beautiful thing about cinema. It’s not “you” that comes into the cinema. One question I asked myself in this film is, and I think it’s what other filmmakers ask themselves on a more conscious way perhaps, is how to manifest the ineffable, the mystery, through images, through cinema. How to translate that. So I arrived to the point, one has to arrive to the point of accepting problems that will end up making another film, a mystery film, not yours. To arrive to this point of submission, of abandonment. Of course, when you are shooting, you’re suffering. You say, “I wanted this” but you get another thing. This is the beautiful thing, you know. It’s interesting to accept what life has given you, which may better than your idea. Obviously, when I was shooting, I had an “ego.” I’m human. So I was not just levitating and thinking that everything was good. No. I was suffering and fighting. But, then, the film was made with a level of a lack of conscience, and craziness, enough that allowed for obstacles to come and make a different movie. The movie made itself.
NOTEBOOK: What you’re talking about, in a way, is faith. You have faith that, in the end, the magic, the mystery, will manifest itself.
LAXE: It’s not only faith in that, in the film. It’s faith that it’s not only in this world. I mean, the faith is also sent to the conscience of other worlds. Maybe we don’t get to see it in this world, in this chronological and superficial world. Everything is for eternity. It’s not for the “now.” I don’t have this anxiety. I need a result. I need to capitalize what I’m doing. It’s just that I have to do what I have to do in a path. I have to take decisions I know I have the faith and certainty that if I make a decision, it’s the one I have to make. Like the two characters in the movie, which at the end sell themselves to the bandits. They’re probably going to die. They are only two against many. They have a plastic sword. They know there’s no other way out. You know, you can accept that you’re going to die with dignity today, in this world—but you are eternal.
NOTEBOOK: That goes to something that you mentioned in the notes to the film, where you talk about this general absence of a specific religiousness or spirituality in a certain generation. I was wondering about the spiritual journey of these two men, these scoundrels. Why did you want to send them on a spiritual journey?
LAXE: Because we are in times of skepticism, you know, towards guidance, or masters. You know, we have universities in the place and superficial knowledge. Only external. Never internal. Of course there are times in which skepticism is so high that also finishes with the idea of skepticism itself. Those are the moments and I’m a son of that. I’m just a radical skeptic. This is also a kind of mysticism. I’m not a mystic, because, of course, it’s a higher state; but this is the intention of the film. So, these two characters, they have a similar heart geometry to others. I mean, human beings in Morocco have the same heart as those in New York, for example. This is a Muslim Western. I’m not mixing spiritual paths or cultures, but I went into the essence and, when you do that, it’s something that can be understood from other traditions and cultures. I think. I hope.
This interview was filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here