Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) is showing on MUBI from September 6 - October 6 and Oliver Laxe's Mimosas (2016) from September 7 - October 7, 2017 in the United Kingdom as part of the series Close-Up on Oliver Laxe.
Both Mimosas and The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers mirror each other in many different ways: they both take place in the same geographical space, the south of Morocco, they were filmed at the same time, have some of the same people in them, and are filmed in 16mm. But these are only apparent similarities that veil deeper discussions between both films. Director Oliver Laxe stands behind the camera in Mimosas, he is observed from the distance in the first part of The Sky Trembles, and finally ends up crossing the invisible wall between reality and fiction to become a character through the lens of Ben Rivers. This liminal space of transit and border dissolution between fiction and reality, between the real and the spiritual, is what fluctuates freely between these two films.
Laxe was already playing with fiction and documentary in his first film You All Are Captains when he placed himself in the story only to later disappear from it, letting the film unfold on its own. Mimosas’ in-betweenness unveils itself more subtly through its photography and its sound work. The narrative core of the film is the story of a caravan that crosses the Atlas mountains of Morocco escorting a dying sheikh to Sijilmasa, where he will be buried with his family. During the journey the sheikh dies. At this point, two of the members of the caravan, Saïd and Ahmed, claim to know the way through the Atlas mountains to bring the body to Sijilmasa. It is then when both the plot and the path of the caravan dissolve, and the film starts becoming more and more loose to the point that the purpose of the trip does not matter anymore. With every step that the characters give, the visual structure of the film develops further and further, building a defined sensitive quality that transforms the experience of watching into discovery. This feeling of unease is accentuated towards the end when one of the characters, Ahmed, is portrayed as a junkie who seems to be dreaming the entire thing. This temporal break not only questions the entire story and its origins but also its coordinates in space and time. Is this a flashback? Are we in dream territory?
From the beginning of the film, the 16mm photography of Mauro Herce creates a visual aura that slowly takes over the narrative. While the characters walk, the steps’ vibrations become more important than the spoken word, and the landscape unifies itself with the characters. With each step the purpose of the trip dilutes, while the action of walking itself becomes central. The journey is not a straight line with a beginning and an end, instead it becomes a poetic flow where there is nothing to understand. It is an ongoing, sensitive construction that abandons story and builds on the capacity of learning from a point of not knowing. Laxe re-imagines the purpose of film as a window to another world: Mimosas operates more as a portal, a personal journey towards alternative ways of learning. By contrast The Sky Trembles questions the position of the the audience and Laxe himself as a filmmaker.
For his discussion around meta-cinema, Ben Rivers takes a different route from the traditional observational behind-the-scenes and fictionalized meta-cinematic documentary models. He mentions as a direct reference Vampir Cuadecoc (1971) by the Spanish filmmaker from the Barcelona School, Pere Portabella. Vampir Cuadecoc was done around the production of Jess Franco’s Dracula (1970) with Christopher Lee. Instead of a factual account, Portabella created a personal film shot in 16mm, in black and white and with a non-synchronized electronic composition by Carles Santos—one which which Rivers himself appropriated for the installation version of his project. The film was a reflexive analysis of the fantastic horror genre, in an attempt to question the construction of cinematographic codes that privileged certain social positions. In the case of The Sky Trembles, the question is focused around ethnographic filmmaking in particular and, more in general, about how film builds worlds tailored to those in positions of power.
The Sky Trembles has two different parts: the first is a free discussion around the apparatus of film, showing Laxe while working on location for Mimosas. There are a wide range of images: Laxe giving instructions to actors, long takes of the sets taken from the distance, and in-between sequences where one of the extras performs magic tricks for the camera, among others. The sense of what is staged and what is not is in flux. There are images directly taken from Laxe’s production, combined with casual footage of the interstitial time between sequences, as well as material that could be clearly (and it is) staged. The lack of synchronized sound underlines the distancing quality of the images, building an increasing uneasy feeling that is amplified during the second fictional part of the film.
Towards the middle of the film, Laxe jumps into his 4x4 and drives off from the film set. Rivers follows him with his camera sitting on the back of the car. We are now on a journey with Laxe. In contrast to Mimosas, this trip is a spiritual journey where Laxe becomes the main character of a free adaptation of Paul Bowles’s short story A Distant Episode (1945). In the story, a linguistic professor doing research in Morocco about languages is kidnapped, beaten and dressed with a suit covered in tin lids forced to dance and perform for the audiences. Likewise Laxe is abducted, forced to wear a tin lid suit, and perform for them.
Rivers has been often associated with the traditional ethnographic documentary tradition of Robert Flaherty and Robert Gardner for his intimate hand-crafted approach where the intimate space becomes the personal claim of truth. The Sky Trembles is a turn in his work, a critical exercise of visuality that investigates the connections between anthropology and documentary. How are the politics of viewing framing the anthropological subject? The film is a magnifying glass that looks both at Laxe and Rivers themselves as filmmakers. It explores the relationship of the characters with the camera as a mechanism of control and construction, as well as the position of power of the filmmaker. When Laxe crosses from behind the camera into a fictional, constructed world, The Sky Trembles unpacks the binary practice of othering traditionally used in anthropological documentaries.
Both Mimosas and The Sky Trembles move away from narratives, moving towards sensorial territories where what becomes central is being in the moment. They both fall in what Erika Balsom identifies as practices that “pursue ethnography through cinema, rather than the written discourse.”1 Both films operate at a cognitive level, instead of a narrative level, even though both have narrative tendencies. Story in both cases operates as a point of entry. These films are a part of the sensitive world, the world of the subtle forms, a third space in between fiction and the realm, and between fantasy and actuality.