Two Years at Sea

UK 2011, 90 mins
Director: Ben Rivers

The screening on Saturday 14 January will feature an intro and Q&A with Mark Jenkin and Ben Rivers.

It’s the aesthetic, the grain, the flicker, the texture that draws me in. But it’s the complete lack of backstory that ensures I keep returning to this enigmatic masterpiece. What’s not to love about a Bolex-shot, 16mm black and white, hand-processed genre-bending portrait of personal contentment?
Mark Jenkin

What could possibly appear more strange or uncanny to many of us today than silence, slow action and solitariness? As the world increasingly follows its fervour and civilisation clamours to keep up, irrational timeouts have cultivated our dreams and become the stuff of fantasy. For the past decade, London-based artist-filmmaker Ben Rivers has explored alternate worlds on this very earth via short films and gallery installations that offer up other ways of living and being. With an affection for utopian novels like Sir Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and a recurring Ballardian sense of underlying urban dystopia, Rivers has consistently headed for the hills – fertile ground for his imagination, with atmospheric climes and textures ripe for recording on his 16mm Bolex camera.

Fêted internationally for his neo-ethnographic explorations of curious, hermetic existences – such as Ah, Liberty (2008) and Origins of the Species (2008) – and in some cases vanishing environments, as in Sack Barrow (2011), Rivers has successfully extended his signature themes and style into long-form with Two Years at Sea, his mesmerising and award-winning feature debut. Revisiting the forest-dwelling subject of his earlier 14-minute film This Is My Land (2006), Rivers observes Jake Williams, who lives alone with his black cat in the woods of Aberdeenshire, entirely off the grid, fulfilling daily rituals that sustain him and his freedom.

While comparisons can and have been made with the films of Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso (known for his portraits of solitary and strikingly silent men, especially his 2001 debut La libertad, with its pared-down cycle of working, eating, shitting and sleeping), Two Years at Sea is less concerned with questioning the nature of freedom that attends manual work under an open sky, than with mythic time and the effect of the somewhat strange physical human imprint upon inhabited rural terrain. That Jake is filmed in Scope is unsurprising given Rivers’s previous use of the anamorphic lens, most auspiciously in his heady sci-fi featurette Slow Action (2010), but here this lone man’s navigating of expansive spaces unapologetically conjures the sublime.

Jake is nameless, unidentified and nearly wordless in Two Years at Sea. Looking like a cross between a twinkly-eyed Father Time and an ancient Roman bust come to life with wild mane and bushy beard, he exists in an undetermined time and place electrified by a protean life force – thrillingly expressed through Rivers’s hand-processed, rich and moody monochromatic images – that’s completely at odds with today’s pace and rampant technological transformations. His is an analogue world, replete with audiocassettes and record player, pen and paper.

Little is revealed about Jake, apart from his amazingly eclectic taste in music (from Indian to Hawaiian honky-tonk and folk), which – in startling counterpoint to the pervasive quiet – is heard blaring from his truck or from the gramophone ingeniously rigged to the facade of his ramshackle house. Jake also has a penchant for quirky interventions into the landscape, such as hoisting a caravan up a tree as a sort of teetering trailer-park Futuro house. His gestures are jittery, joyful, impulsive and determined; the central mystery of his identity is both tempered and fuelled by time-worn photographs that emerge and fill the frame as interstitial transitions or chapter headings between scenes, telltale signs of a less solitary past.

Despite its attenuated narrative elapsing over a few seasons and its long, lingering takes – some nearing ten minutes as we watch Jake float and fish on a makeshift raft in a neighbouring loch, or fade to black by the dimming light of a campfire – Two Years at Sea is far from minimalist. The film itself is buoyed by a generosity of vision, spirit and affectionate humour that obviate austerity and further distinguish it from Alonso’s more Bressonian La libertad. The pulsating widescreen images hover and surge with electrified meteorological detail, but also with bits of fusain-like dust and goopy watermarks that correspond to the messiness of Jake’s heap-filled home.

With several caravans’ worth of belongings, in addition to the objects in his house, Jake is a pack rat whose ample, knick-knacky possessions crucially contribute to the film’s sculptural nature. With moments reminiscent of Gordon Matta-Clark’s filmic architectural cut-outs, Two Years at Sea is a portrait of a sentient human being, but one that pays keen attention to the light cast from the forms and objects – and especially windows and walls – that surround Jake and his cat. ‘You can say as much filming some empty bottles on a shelf [as] you can hearing Jake talk about living in that place for the last 20 years,’ Rivers tells me in a phone interview.

Flouting the notion of an objective documentary image, Rivers refuses to provide his film with a label. ‘It’s up to other people to categorise the work,’ he insists. ‘So if a documentary festival wants to show it, that’s fine by me, but I’m not going to call it a documentary. I’m going to call it cinema. All cinema has varying levels of construction, and that’s what’s so interesting about it. I never set out to make a representation of Jake’s life. I set out to make a film which is very close to his life, but it’s a film that in the end exists for itself. In and for itself. And I think that’s a really crucial distinction.’

Citing the work of Robert Flaherty, Humphrey Jennings and even the Lumière brothers as examples where fiction and documentary meet and become intertwined, Rivers is less interested in discussing a cinema of the ‘in between’, though he’s very conscious of the fact that much of his work does indeed raise questions about the nature of ethnography, and purposely interrogates the genre. What he will say is that Two Years at Sea is ‘an exaggeration of certain parts of Jake’s life’, stressing the collaborative working relationship between his subject and himself. Rivers scripted the film, but made alterations whenever Jake felt a task or action would be ‘out of character’. Asked why he chose to go back to Jake when an award from the Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network provided the impetus to work on his first feature, Rivers responds: ‘Jake was the first. Before I made This Is My Land, I had never considered making anything even closely resembling a documentary, or something that involved real people in their actual places. Everything before was constructed or made by myself. He holds a pretty important place in my filmmaking development.’

Setting some rules for himself at the outset, Rivers chose as a challenge to make a feature with a sole character and without dialogue as a way of creating cinema out of an alternate language in order to ‘immerse the viewer in a world atmospherically and with a different kind of intellectual engagement… a language of gestures and movements. There’s a language of the objects seen in the film, of space and of the way that space is constructed,’ he continues. ‘You can look at what he’s accumulated and see it as a kind of language built up to portray the person he is. From the things that one surrounds oneself with emerges the language of cinema.’
Andréa Picard, Sight and Sound, May 2012

A Portrait of Ga
The purest film included in this season. A camera, a voice, some music. A beautiful and apparently simple portrait of a loved one, but also a love letter to the medium of film itself; a past-tense art form that shows us ghosts and freezes time. Truly transcendental filmmaking.
Mark Jenkin

Director: Margaret Tait
Production Company: Ancona Films
Producer: Margaret Tait
Screenplay: Margaret Tait
Camera: Margaret Tait
Editor: Margaret Tait
Music Played by: Alastair MacCourt
UK 1952
5 mins

Film by: Ben Rivers
©: Ben Rivers
Commissioned by: FLAMIN Productions through: Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network
with funding from: Arts Council England
Produced by: Ben Rivers
For Film London: Head of Production and Talent Development: Maggie Ellis; FLAMIN Manager: Rose Cupit; Production Advisor: Pinky Ghundale Blow-up: PresTech Film Laboratories Ltd
Sound: Chu-Li Shewring
Sound Mix: Kevin Pyne
In Memory of: Bob Coleman
Thanks to: Beverly Family of Rhynie, Nick Collins, Paul Dean, Nick Gordon Smith, Andrew Kötting, Bob Morrice, Len Thornton, Ben Russell, Whitechapel Art Gallery
Jake Williams

UK 2011©
90 mins

Walkabout + Oss Oss Wee Oss
Sun 1 Jan 13:10; Mon 9 Jan 20:30
The Stone Tape + Journey to Avebury
Mon 2 Jan 15:40
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Wed 4 Jan 18:30; Sat 28 Jan 16:15
Symptoms + Stigma
Fri 6 Jan 18:10; Sun 15 Jan 15:30
Lost Highway + Jaunt
Fri 6 Jan 20:15; Sun 22 Jan 18:10
Haunters of the Deep + The Living and the Dead Episode 2
Sun 8 Jan 13:20; Sat 14 Jan 20:40
Long Weekend + Between the Tides
Tue 10 Jan 18:20; Mon 23 Jan 20:30
Penda’s Fen + A Warning to the Curious
Wed 11 Jan 17:50
Two Years at Sea + A Portrait of Ga
Sat 14 Jan 18:00 (+ intro and Q&A with Mark Jenkin and Ben Rivers); Tue 24 Jan 20:45
Daguerréotypes + World of Glory
Sun 15 Jan 12:00 (+ intro by Mark Jenkin); Thu 26 Jan 20:50
Sun 15 Jan 18:00; Mon 30 Jan 20:50
Requiem for a Village + The Signalman
Fri 27 Jan 18:20; Tue 31 Jan 20:40
Berberian Sound Studio + Wind
Sun 29 Jan 15:30 (+ intro by Mark Jenkin and Peter Strickland); Tue 31 Jan 18:10

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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