“I feel like I avoid being boxed in.” in conversation with Ben Rivers

A still from Krabi, 2562

For the uninitiated, Ben Rivers’ filmography resembles something of a maze: it’s all contained within the same structure, but every turn taken is a new adventure. At first, you might take him for a celluloid apologist working in the field of ethnographic film, but then a film like Things (2014) throws at you an extended sequence in a computer-generated recreation of Rivers’ apartment. There are archival works and a profile on architecture. There are an abstract science-fiction trilogy and a triptych that ends with a black metal performance. And then there are of course his observational pieces, of a film being made or a sloth hanging from a branch or someone living off the grid.

“I feel like I avoid being boxed in,” he tells me during our conversation at the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. He’s there with two new films: Krabi, 2562 (2019), a feature-length collaboration with Anocha Suwichakornpong (who was sick at home in Thailand, sadly), and Look Then Below (2019), a 21-minute science fiction piece made with Mark von Schlegell and Christina Vantzou. And so we talked about them, as well as a third film that wasn’t selected. Not to clarify any of their content, but rather illuminate their process of creation. Simple things like how much a film like Krabi, 2562 costs or the availability of his obscure shorts or how someone with an oeuvre as enigmatic and idiosyncratic as River’s can survive in a cinematic landscape such as the one today.

Bram Ruiter: Your work always reminds me somehow of the musician Grouper, who has a very varied body of work…

Ben Rivers: I love her work.

Me too. She has a record out and then a split with another artist or some EP under a different monicker. And I see that with your work as well. There’s a lot of short films, there’s a bunch of features, and every one of them feels different from the other. And you collaborate a lot as well. What do you hope to achieve, whenever you collaborate?

The reason why I have collaborated a few times with Ben Russell, Gabriel Abrantes and now Anocha Suwichakornpong is very simple: It’s just an admiration of their work and seeing that you share ideas, that you have similar thoughts or similar interests. For instance, Anocha and I take a fragmentary view of life. This idea of time slipping backwards and forwards, as well as different modes of representation and storytelling. If you see By The Time It Gets Dark (2016) you see that it moves through these different registers and that characters come and go. And that’s something I’m really interested in myself.

I really like the narrative aspects of her work and I thought working with her would help me move into that because I’m interested in experimenting with that. And, you know, working with actors, which she does a lot more of than me. And I imagine the opposite was the same. She was interested to get more of the kind of observational documentary I do. We both have similar interests, but we have different ways of doing things. And then the idea is that you get together to make something that neither of you could make. And we’ll just have to relinquish our ego a bit, which is all really good and healthy.

Yesterday in the Q&A you mentioned you wanted to leave this shot of birds flying around an abandoned cinema up for about 10 minutes, but that Anocha won that argument for keeping it shorter. If you were by yourself-

It might’ve been too long, yeah.

Krabi, 2562

And yet, I’ve seen a bunch of your films and I’ve seen Anocha’s first film, Mundane History (2010). And I was waiting for that, for lack of a better term, extended psychedelic sequence. And somehow, when you put you two together, that doesn’t happen.

We were both wondering when that would happen. Like, when is the cosmic, weird, dreamy thing going to happen? And you’re right because the birds are kind of the closest thing to that. And a little bit when, well it’s not on for very long though, so it’s not really it, but in the scene with the close-up of the hair from the severed finger in the forensics lab.

So, I was wondering about the distribution of your films. Or the availability, rather. Specifically, your shorter work is generally very hard to come by. What stops you from uploading everything to Vimeo and put it behind a paywall?

I’m really in a quandary about it because I like the idea that anyone can watch them and have access to them, but there’s the occasional sale to a museum or private collector is also how I survive. It basically keeps me going because the kind of films I make, you know, they’re not commercial. And we know that they’re not at the Odeon making loads of money. That’s the price to pay.

Do you think a lot about the length of your films before embarking on them?

While I don’t think too much about the length, those feature-length films aren’t arbitrarily that length. I wanted Two Years At Sea (2011) to be a feature film so that it could get to a different kind of audience. It was released theatrically in a few countries. And in a way, it enables me to get over the problem with my short films. Feature films can be released on DVD and they can be shown on TV.

But, often the length of a film has to do with money. If somebody offers me $5.000 to make something, then I’ll make something I could make for $5.000. And that’s probably going to be short. Features take a lot longer to make, there’s more convincing to do.

Would you ever make a conventional narrative feature?

I’ve written a couple of features. I mean, the next film I want to make is probably more narrative than Krabi, 2562 or The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015). Those films were edging on the narrative. They’re kind of in-between the observational and the constructive fiction, whereas I’ve written a couple of films which are pretty much straight-forward narrative fiction. And I like that as a form. I’m a complete cinephile. That’s why I was involved in running a cinema in Brighton for 10 years. And Krabi is pretty narrative, there are loads of stories in there.

Also, partially why we made Krabi, 2562 was because I was a bit frustrated with some of the other feature projects which were taking a lot longer to raise money for.

For a film like Krabi, 2562 there’s never any documentation of how expensive they actually are, but I’d understand if you’d rather not disclose this-

No, no, I think budgets are really interesting. With Krabi, 2562, we didn’t want to wait around for funding. We didn’t want to do a very long-winded project that could take 1 or 2 or 3 years. So, we had small pots of money. We got $10.000 from Harvard because Anocha was working there. We raised almost $40.000 with the campaign on IndieGogo. We made a pre-sale to Chinese sales agent and production company Rediance, which was a decent chunk. It just all added up. And filming in Thailand made everything a lot cheaper, too. We had a small crew of around 20 people and it was maybe 13 days of filming.

A still from Look Then Below

And all in one go?

There was an eleven-day shoot. When we started to edit we realized we needed a bit more, so we went back for that. And that was mostly the scenes that come at the end: the hotel receptionist picking up her kid, the projectionist picking up his granddaughter and having a drink. These scenes of day-to-day life, almost like an epilogue, showing their lives continuing.

And this leads me to another very rude question: how much did you and Anocha get paid for Krabi, 2562?

I really don’t mind answering that question. Actually, Anocha and I were the only ones who weren’t paid for that film.

You’re kidding.

In fact, we both lost a couple of grand each, but that wasn’t our intention, to begin with. We were hoping for one last pot of money, which would have covered our wages, but we didn’t get it. Had we got it, we would have probably paid ourselves. We produced, directed and edited on it. So we did a lot.

How long did it take from the first yes from an investor for Krabi, 2562, until…

Oh super quick. We were actually filming while the IndieGogo campaign was happening. So, in the beginning, we had very little, but we still went ahead because I was certain that it was gonna happen. I was pretty optimistic while Anocha had her doubts, but I was just sure that it was gonna work. And I was almost right apart from our fee. [Laughs] But we made the film, and that’s the most important thing.

And you didn’t want to sit around and wait?

Well, I never sit around waiting.

A still from Look Then Below

Which brings me to Look Then Below, the other film that’s currently showing at the festival. When was that made?

I shot that in August and September and then edited it in October.

It’s the third in a trilogy of films (following Slow Action (2011) and Urth (2016)) which you’ve made with Mark von Schlegell, who writes the texts. So, naturally, this film is very scripted. Do you create a storyboard based on his texts?

It doesn’t quite work like that. With Mark, it’s always quite a long back and forth. I tell him what I want in the text. Like, it’s going to be a cave film, it’s going to be about a race of people that live underground, and an explorer goes down and finds them and tries to communicate with them.

We talk about books a lot, as influences. I send him bits of texts. And then he will send a draft based on what I’ve been talking about. And during that, I never show him what I am filming so that he’s not influenced by that. He’s not trying to illustrate what I’m filming. It’s a really nice process that takes a few months.

And then in-between Krabi, 2562 and Look Then Below I also edited another film, Ghost Strata (2019), for which I shot something each month over the course of 2018. Almost like a diary. It’s not the type of diary in which I’m talking about myself, more about the places I visited, the things I was reading at the time. It premiered in FID Marseille in July.

That sounds great.

Yeah, I like that one. And it ends in Thailand because that’s when we were filming Krabi, 2562.

Is that one doing the rounds?

Yeah. The problem with me releasing a bunch of films in one year is that no one shows all of them. Festivals usually pick one, two if I’m lucky, like at the IFFR. So they just, yeah, go their separate ways.

The idea of Ghost Strata kind of reminds me of Trees Down Here (2018), which was commissioned by MUBI and 6a (the architecture firm). And every time I watch it, its editing is such a mystery to me. It’s a collage of images and yet nothing feels random. Everything feels like it’s in the right place. So, I was very curious about your editing process. How do you decide where to put something? Or does that come to you naturally?

It’s honestly the hardest thing to explain. I sometimes have a eureka moment very quickly and other times I try and bash things together really quickly just to see what happens. That’s what I do if I’m really stuck.

You just make the ugly version.

[gestures moving clips around on an editing timeline] I just put that there and I just put that there and then occasionally, like, oh, those two and that sound Is really doing something. Okay, so I’m gonna build from that. Or I often try and have a beginning and an end. The first shot and last shot are really important. So, you start building like this, beginning to end. And maybe you start having a few little chunks which are working. And then I try to join up those chunks. It’s a lot of playing and moving around and it’s just, it’s hard to explain.

Yeah, editing is such a malleable process, it can become anything at that point.

That’s the initial frightening thing. The options are limitless, almost. That’s why I normally have to just kind of attack it in a semi-unconscious way.

This International Film Festival Rotterdam Interviews article was published in February 2020