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Sculpting in Time: Ben Rivers on "Ghost Strata" and "Now, at Last!"

Filmmaker Ben Rivers discusses how shifting concepts of time, fiction, and self relate to his films "Ghost Strata" and "Now, at Last!"
Jordan Cronk
Ben Rivers's Ghost Strata (2019) and Now, at Last! (2018) are exclusively showing October and November 2020 on MUBI in the series Ben Rivers: As Time Goes By.
Above: Ghost Strata
Over the course of nearly two decades, Ben Rivers has been called many things: a portraitist, a documentarian, an experimental ethnographer—even, in his own words, an “accidental anthropologist.” Early in his 2019 film Ghost Strata, a tarot reader points to a less remarked upon feature of Rivers’s work: “All your movies are about you,” she says, suggesting an autobiographical through-line in a filmography rarely acknowledged for its personal aspects.
While a rereading of Rivers’s entire body of work is a fascinating proposition, one might look to Ghost Strata and another film he shot the same year, Now, at Last! (2018), for evidence of how these personal elements have manifested in the British director’s recent work. In Ghost Strata, a diary-like film that documents a year-in-the-life of its globe-trotting creator, Rivers fashions a monthly travelogue from bits of footage shot in the UK, Brazil, Corsica, Greece, and Thailand. While in Nottingham, he reconnects with Jan Zalasiewicz, the British geologist featured in 2009's I Know Where I’m Going, who talks of the invisible geologic strata used by scientists to imagine an Earth untouched by climate change—an apt thematic framework for a film that unfolds across variety of unique environments and through a number of fictional prisms in the form of literary excerpts, cave paintings, an audio lecture by John Cage, and behind-the-scenes footage of Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong at work on their 2019 collaborative feature Krabi 2562.
Operating in an even more reflexive mode, Now, at Last! finds Rivers reengaging his early interest in solitary protagonists in slyly humorous fashion. Here, a sloth named Cherry takes center stage as Rivers films the notoriously methodical animal’s day-to-day activities in the Costa Rican jungle. As Cherry slowly climbs a tree and hangs from a branch, Rivers alternates black-and-white 16mm footage of her journey with prismatic color sequences achieved through a three-tone separation process, bringing the film’s aesthetic and temporal dimensions into playful communion with one another, an effect heightened by the intermittent use of a beloved R&B tune. Self-described companion pieces, Ghost Strata and Now, at Last! interrogate the nature of time and how cinema can shape our conception of past and present realities. 
In the following conversation, Rivers and I discuss his cinema’s relationship to time, his thematic obsessions, the fictions of reality, the ghosts of celluloid, and friends gone too soon.

NOTEBOOK: Let’s start with Ghost Strata. Like a number of your recent works, this one features behind-the-scenes footage of an in-progress film, in this case your co-directed feature Krabi 2562. I’m curious if you can talk a bit about the idea of documenting this kind of on-set work and what interests you in re-contextualizing these moments for future projects? I recall the influence of Vampir-Cuadecuc (1971) on A Distant Episode (2015)…
BEN RIVERS: My life has revolved so much around filmmaking that it's often difficult to separate what is inside or outside of it, so it makes sense to me that this obsession should then be revealed in some of my films. Each time it's really about questioning the reality of what we are seeing, the blurry line where observation becomes fiction—something I'm interested in generally and you can play with even more with the behind-the-scenes genre. Films that show the construction of a film have always fascinated me, and with documentaries sometimes they're equal to their object of observation because the drama is there behind the camera. Fitzcarraldo (1982) is great, but perhaps Burden of Dreams (1982) is even better, as you see that Herzog is doing for real what is fiction in his film, and Kinski is crazier in reality than in the movie. Vampir Cuadecuc is an incredible film where Pere Portabella takes a cheap Jess Franco studio B-movie and transforms it into something both beautiful and political, completely transcending its source—you couldn't say whether this is fiction or documentary; the categories become meaningless.
I love cinema that transforms the real world like this, but I'm also aware that it is an intrusion on the world—it naturally takes and exploits. My film The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) has this uneasiness at its heart, and in observing Oliver Laxe's film Mimosas (2016) being made in the first half of the film, my hope is that the viewer then questions the reality of the supposed fiction of the second half of the film—that everything you see and hear is questionable. With Krabi, 2562, Anocha and I wanted to include a part of a film being made because the film revolves around different ways of storytelling, and how these intersect different people's lives in a particular place. The commercial film scene was also a way to show how a landscape can be exploited (and sometimes damaged, in the way The Beach [2000] notoriously did in Krabi some years earlier). When it comes to Ghost Strata, I'd been making that film over the whole of 2018, a section each month to reflect where I was, what I'd read or heard, so it made sense to film behind the scenes of Krabi 2562 at the end of the year, and have fiction fold into documentary in another way. I was really happy when Nut, our First AD and male Neanderthal, smoked a cigarette because it reminded me of a great photo of Boris Karloff made up as Frankenstein's monster smoking during a tea break.
NOTEBOOK: You may have just answered my next question, but just to clarify: the concept and structure of Ghost Strata was in place as you entered 2018? Meaning, you were consciously filming things during each month, knowing that you’d collate the footage into a diary-esque film at year’s end?
RIVERS: Well, not quite. I went to Brazil in January 2018 to research what I might make for the São Paulo Biennial, and became overwhelmed with too many ideas and possibilities. So I arranged a tarot reading to try and help me decide which direction to take. I'd asked if I could record it, and she was fine with that, but I had no idea what it might be for, if anything. Then she started talking about time, and my relationship to it, as you hear in the film (though this is really edited—the reading was around 90 minutes); she also said she thought I would make two films. So from this beginning I decided to make two films, one was the sloth film, which was already in my mind as something almost object-like, monolithic, and the other was a more unpredictable journal-like collage film. I knew I had a great deal of traveling in the year ahead, so I thought it would be good to record some of these places, while keeping in mind time as an overarching theme. I remembered Jan Zalasiewicz telling me about his idea of ghost stratas many years before, and how it had always struck me as a very poetic way of thinking about time, rocks, and absences, so I asked him to talk about it in a place of his choosing early in the film. It was after filming Jan that I thought about a monthly structure, when I attempted to edit him with other things I'd filmed up to that point. Then it became a habit to record a place each month, and connect that with things I read or heard at the same time, to find hidden connections.
NOTEBOOK: Do you often consult tarot cards or other such tools or mediums when struggling to find new creative directions?
RIVERS: This was a first! But it worked out, so it might not be the last...
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned Jan Zalasiewicz, who also appears in voiceover in I Know Where I’m Going, the film of yours that to me most resembles Ghost Strata. I’m curious if, in a similar way that you describe your approach to behind-the-scenes footage, these intertextual connections between your films (whether via recurring interview subjects, or your ongoing engagement with the writings of Mark von Schlegell) are a result of an interest in, if not exactly remaking prior films, than reframing certain ideas, themes, or subjects under different conditions or in new contexts?
RIVERS: I like the idea that my films are an ongoing conversation, with each other and with myself. I'm making a body of work as much as individual films. Much of the time, though, these returns or connections are not necessarily conscious—they’re obsessions, motifs, or themes which repeat because you can't shake them. They recur but you look at them from a different angle, perhaps because the world has changed. Sometimes it's very deliberate, such as working with Mark to make a trilogy of films over a decade. These all revolve around hermetically sealed worlds on a future Earth that has been ravaged by climate change. This is because Mark and I share a lot of the same interests, and it's always a fun conversation to return to, to come up with these speculative future societies or worlds. I also like thinking about time, in relation to cinema, to rocks, to humans, and other life forms, which would be why I might make I Know Where I'm Going, where Jan talks about the Earth in one hundred million years time, and then ten years later remember an aside that Jan mentioned during the making of that film, and bring it back into focus in Ghost Strata.
I remember clearly standing in the rain, in a landscape littered with bizarrely shaped rocks, and Jan excitedly saying to me, "above us now is a ghost strata!,” and then explaining how there was once a deep layer of mud above us. These kinds of things get lodged somewhere in my brain and await their own time. I always liked painters returning to the same composition, reworking them in subtle ways, the classic being Morandi, but many others like Böcklin or Goya—these obsessions where you feel you're not done with something, and you need to do another version. I'm about to embark on a return like this, if all goes to plan, but plans are full of uncertainty these days.
NOTEBOOK: What can you tell me about some of the film’s briefer sections, such as April, which pairs black-and-white images of birds with what I think is audio from Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I'll Come to You, or June, which features vintage still photographs of a house the morning after a party? Were these transitional months when you weren’t traveling, and how do you relate the imagery and material to the film’s wider themes?
RIVERS: Ghost Strata was made freely, without worrying about where it might go. I didn't set any rules for length, and some months just called for brevity, maybe for the overall rhythm—though, thinking back, in April I was really busy making Trees Down Here (2018), so I'm sure that affected me making a shorter installment. You're right I was at home then, so I filmed two pigeons from my window. Then there's a shot of an eerie looking path, and the line "who is this, who is coming?,” from Jonathan Miller and M. R. James’s great ghost story seemed to fit well, mirroring ominous feelings I was having about the future. June was about other kinds of ghosts of the past, but I'm reluctant to explain every image. June is my birthday month, though. Sometimes things I found felt good being short, like the poem 'Islands' by Muriel Rukeyser; it summed up beautifully the absurd desire of many British people to separate from the EU, and the dangers of where that is heading. I wanted to borrow words from some people I really admire like Rukeyser, and Cage, WS Merwin and Pessoa, to talk about things that I care about or that were on my mind at that particular moment. 
Like I said, I liked the way chance played into it, even though some parts were planned. Speaking of which, I was just reading a review of Don Delillo's new book and there's mention of Wallace Steven's late poem “The Planet on the Table,”  so I looked it up, and I think it's relevant here:
Ariel was glad he had written his poems.
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

Other makings of the sun
Were waste and welter
And the ripe shrub writhed.

His self and the sun were one
And his poems, although makings of his self,
Were no less makings of the sun.

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.
NOTEBOOK: That reminds me a bit of something we hear early in the film: “All your movies are about you…”
RIVERS: Yes, that was the tarot reader. I liked that.
NOTEBOOK: Did these shorter sections take on a different dimension in the installation version of the film? Can you describe the layout and conception of how the film was to be projected in a gallery space?
RIVERS: The show at Matt's Gallery in London was in May 2018, so I only had up to April at that time, but those months were the same edit they are now. I showed it on 16mm film projected through a rough hole we cut in the wall of the space, with the projector outside the room, and the image was projected onto a small hanging back projection screen, like it was floating in space. Digital projection has become really excellent, and I use it a lot, but I still love the projected film image—it’s more like a ghost, or a magic trick to create the illusion of a ghost, unlike digital which is hard, bright, and familiar.
NOTEBOOK: The film is dedicated to Jonathan Schwartz, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with him and your thoughts on his work, which also dealt with nature, geology, and memory?
RIVERS: I met Jonathan with Ben Russell in 2006, when they were touring around Europe with a selection of their films called Psychoacoustic Geographers. At the time my friends and I were still running the Brighton Cinematheque—this was one of our last shows. It was a pivotal time for me, when I had decided to move away from showing other people's films and concentrate on making my own. I’d just made This Is My Land (2006), which was a significant step towards that. I found Ben and Jonathan really inspiring: their films, the way they talked about them so generously afterwards, their humor and seriousness. We quickly became close.
My friendship with Ben has been more public, with our filmmaking and curatorial collaborations. With Jonathan it was a more private correspondence, an exchange of ideas, poems—he was a brilliant letter writer. I liked to send him new films for his thoughts and he was always so perceptive, talking about sound-image-text relationships, many of which I thought people wouldn't notice, and some which I hadn't even noticed. We connected in those things you mentioned, but also with an obsession with sound and it's possibilities. Jonathan made some astonishing films; even when he was seriously ill he made The Crack-Up (2017), which to me is a mind-blowing film. I got the email I'd been dreading from Ben in October 2018, while I was in São Paulo. It's a crazy city, so busy, and I needed to be alone, so I went to the botanical gardens, which were really quiet. I found this beautiful bamboo grove and sat there listening for a long time. I thought Jonathan would've liked it, so I filmed it. And I read The Mariner by Pessoa at the same time, thanks to an excerpt that my friend sent me that she thought I'd like, the part that actually ends up in the film. The melancholy in those words, spoken by three sisters trying to understand their predicament, and to talk about the past, were right for how I was feeling.
Above: Now, at Last!
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that Ghost Strata and Now, at Last! originated from the same tarot reading, but that you had been thinking of the sloth idea before then. I’m curious when you shot Now, at Last!, but also if, while making the films, you conceived of them as companion pieces or in relation to each other at all?
RIVERS: I had the idea of the sloth film earlier but needed a little push. I filmed Now, at Last! in July 2018, in Costa Rica, and for a while the July section of Ghost Strata was going to be a shot that didn't make it into Now, at Last!—which was a shot of Cherry hanging on her branch in front of a huge blow-up of Max Ernst's Le joie de vivre (which I'd strung up on some surrounding branches). It's a very strange image, Ernst's jungle with a real animal in front of it, but in the end I decided to go for the Corsica shots and the poem for July instead. I didn't think about the connection too much once the films began and took shape, but they are companion pieces, with time as the central connecting tissue. Ghost Strata moves around different time-scales of Earth, the impact of humans on the environment, antique objects found in the sediments of the Thames riverbanks, cave paintings, and so on, whereas Now, at Last! concentrates on a particular animal time, and is more concerned with attention, and cinema time.
I wanted to make a film where you are simply asked to look at this creature which has a different relationship with time, to lose yourself in its rhythm and relinquish the anthropocentric view of the world, just for a short while, and to let go and not be angry about there not being a story about a sloth going to find a mate or whatever. It is partly inspired by a couple of stories, though: The Word For World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is about capitalist humans colonizing a forest planet without caring about how everything is connected as an ecosystem; and Axolotl by Julio Cortazar, which is about someone who repeatedly goes to an aquarium to stare into the eyes of an axolotl, and at the end a transference takes place. The film is essentially saying that the world isn't us and everything else, the world is everything including us.
NOTEBOOK: Another sort of humorous interpretation I’ve heard is that the film is a sly jab at the idea of “slow cinema,” and also a kind of self-referential spin on the kind of portrait films of solitary figures that you made your name on. I’m not in any way suggesting that the film is a joke, but as someone who’s seen nearly all of your films, it is interesting (and kind of funny) to look at it from that angle, particularly as you have seemed to move ever-so-slowly away from that sort of cinematic portraiture—like this is somehow the logical result of that methodology. 
RIVERS: The film has humor in it—or at least I think it's funny. But I also made it completely seriously and with love. Even though it may seem simple, it took quite a few months to organize and make; I wouldn't do that for a joke about “slow” or any other kind of cinema. It is a kind of cinematic portrait, though, which, you're right, I haven't done so much lately. I want to try out lots of things, though I think I'll still return to portraits sometimes, because it usually comes out of knowing someone and liking them, and wanting to spend more time with them. The next films I have planned are mostly features, two entirely fictional, and one is returning to a semi-fictional portrait.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think prompted this move away from straight portraiture?
RIVERS: My very first film at art school was a kind of Kuchar inspired take on Jekyll and Hyde; the non-fiction element was that it had all my friends in it. Of the forty or so films I've made, I think there's only four which I would say were fairly straight portraits—that'd be This Is My Land, Origin of the Species (2008), A World Rattled of Habit (2008), and What Means Something (2016). I start with the assumption that all films are fictions in some way or another, there being so many choices made on every level to add fiction to a real world situation, from the choice of framing or where to cut a shot. I like making and also watching films that move between different layers of reality, and over the years I think my own emphasis has shifted from being more focused on non-fiction with subtle fictional elements to a move towards the reverse of that. That's why I want to experiment more with fiction in films to come, to push that side of my filmmaking further. So for the first time in my life I've written a couple of full-length scripts, whereas up to now my features have been based on a few page treatments, notes, images, and lists, with a great deal of improvisation in the making. I want to keep evolving. That's why I love Chantal Akerman; you can tell every one of her films is by her, and yet she moved through many different modes: fiction, diary, formal experiments, documentary, musicals, adaptations. I think I have a similar kind of restlessness, though no musicals planned so far. 
NOTEBOOK: Tell me a little about working with Cherry. There’s a “sloth advisor” credited on the film; did she instruct you a bit about filming in close proximity to Cherry? And how long did you end up shooting for?
RIVERS: I was searching for quite some time for the right sloth to film, at first in Brazil because that's where the film was commissioned, but that proved really difficult. I asked Lucy Cooke, who is a brilliant zoologist, writer, and all round expert on sloths for advice on where to film in the wild, which is tricky because they're quite solitary and often live very high up in the trees. Lucy told me about the Jaguar Rescue Centre in the jungle of South East Costa Rica, who rehabilitate animals who have had accidents. Sloths are victims of illegal logging in the jungle, when trees are felled at night and they're up in the canopy. The center had a number of sloths and I picked Cherry because she was beautiful and also they told me she wasn't nervous with people. She was also ready to leave the center. So each day for two to three weeks they took her to a low down branch in the depths and let her get reacquainted with life in the jungle, so it was a perfect time to film a wild animal in the wild, but with a little control over where she would be. I filmed her on this same branch for five days, though most of that time I was just watching and recording sound. I filmed on an Aaton camera, with longish lenses, so I was quiet and fairly unobtrusive. 
NOTEBOOK: In the interest of allowing viewers to be surprised by the song used in the film, I won’t mention it here, but can you tell me where the idea came from to use this song, and if there is always a musical component to the work?
RIVERS: After my week in the jungle with Cherry, I was driving back to San Jose to fly home. It was night and the rain was pouring so hard that it was hard to see out of the windscreen, and this song came on the radio. The lyrics, about time and love and loneliness, all seemed weirdly perfect—it felt like a gift. When I put together the three-color separation shots in post (filmed on black-and-white film, first with a red filter, then green, then blue, one after the other; then when they're layered afterwards you get the full color, and when the sloth moves you see the color displacement), I tried the song on top and I really liked how it worked, and it was exactly the same length as the two color shots, so it stayed.
NOTEBOOK: One last question: I’m curious if you can talk about how the pandemic has affected your working life and the trajectory of your most recent film, Look Then Below? You also mentioned a few in-the-works features; has the current situation made it a bit more practical to pursue these long term projects?
RIVERS: I first showed Look Then Below as an exhibition, and then in the cinema at the Rotterdam Film Festival, and then everything stopped, went online, and the film has been showing that way since. It's good people get to see it, and I appreciate all the effort festivals have put into trying to keep things moving and seen, but one of the joys of festivals is the exchange you have with viewers and fellow filmmakers. And there's nothing like seeing films in the cinema. I finished four films in 2019, so I was feeling pretty good about production, and had planned to spend time writing these features I'd been thinking about, so the first few months of the pandemic were actually good for me, forcing me to not travel. I went to my friend’s house in the countryside, worked on research and got a lot of writing done, as well as going on a long walk every day. I also ate a lot of wild garlic. For a while now, though, I feel like I'm in waiting mode: I'm hungry to get these films moving in a more real sense, but I still need money, and the people with the purse strings are wary. There's one feature which I think I can get started on soon, though, a return to a very special place for me, for a sequel...

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