An interview with Artist Ben Rivers

By William Rose

This Is my Land (excerpt), 2006

Ben Rivers has been experimenting with film since he studied at Falmouth School of Art in the late 90s. He has made over nine short works which have been shown at festivals, galleries and fancy boutiques around the world. At the 2006 Hamburg Short Film Festival he received special mention for The Hyrcynium Wood and The Bomb With a Man in His Shoe (both 2005). Ben works almost self sufficiently, filming exclusively in 16mm using a wind-up Bolex and hand processing. His films bring early cinema to mind, revealing mythical worlds and extraordinary characters which lie beneath the surface of the so-called real. Working alongside Michael Sippings, he runs the Brighton Cinematheque organising screenings, planning touring programmes and DVD releases. Amongst many ongoing projects, Ben is currently working on a film called This is My Land, which documents a real-life character called Jake and his self-sustaining existence in the wilderness of Scotland.

William Rose: In This is My Land (work in progress 2006), Jake’s self-sustaining existence resonates with your approach to filmmaking.

Ben Rivers: I had been interested in finding a person who was living a self-sustaining life, somehow separate from society in general, but for positive and not reactionary reasons. I was beginning to look for characters like this, because they somehow reflect marginalised, and to my mind subversive, cinema and filmmaking. It struck me straight away that there were parallels between our ways of working; I have tried to be as self-reliant as possible and be apart from the idea of industry. Jake's life and garden are much the same, he can sustain himself from what he grows and so needs little from others. 

WR: Previously your work centred on carefully selected spaces and places. This is My Land is more of a portrait.

BR: After a few years of making films without people I had a strong urge to put them back into my films, either in a fictional or documentary context, or somewhere between the two, like The Bomb with a Man in his Shoe. I like to have a few projects on the go at the same time that are somehow different to one another, this keeps the excitement going and allows them to feed unexpectedly into each other. The portraits I’ve started have been growing in a very natural way through friends of friends, this suits me and allows me to get close to people who wouldn’t be interested in a TV crew filming their lives. 

WR: Your films have a fairytale quality, but there's also a sense that the modern world isn’t far away. The two co-exist, but not without tension.

BR: In the modern world I think it's important to keep hold of an idea of imagination and the importance of creating worlds. I've always been a champion daydreamer, so I think this is about the possibilities of worlds that are deeply engrained in our psyche, coexisting with our everyday lives, in a way in which we allow them to. Many of my favourite writers are interested in this tension, like Borges, Calvino, Hoffmann and Poe; they do something I would like to achieve with my films, which is pitch brazen possibilities against the so-called real, whatever that is. I want there to be a convergence between the actual world surrounding us every day, and those informed by our imaginations.

bomb-with-a-man-in-his-shoe-ben-rivers.jpgThe Bomb With a Man in his Shoe, 2005

WR: This make-believe quality is echoed in the timelessness of the derelict locations and models you’ve used.

BR: I’m interested in the traces of human behavior that remain in places that have since been abandoned. I like the idea of ghost stories, not for any spiritual reason but the idea that history can remain in a place. I also find it interesting when human industry has ceased but nature continues its work and makes the human endeavor somehow insignificant. The model town in We The People (2004) already existed, built for town planning purposes for Wimbourne in the 50s. I called them up and asked if I could take some shots and they told me, ‘Oh, you don't want to come now, we've taken all the windows and doors out for repainting’, I was so excited and drove down straight away. I’m interested in the role of myself as a filmmaker, and the construction of a model world echoes the maniacal need to make and control worlds.

WR: Sound seems very important in your films.

BR: I often use found sounds stolen from other films mixed with recordings, placing images and sounds together in ways that can totally change the initial idea. The eureka moment is when an unexpected sound and image suddenly belong to each other in an edit. In This Is My Land it seemed important that all the sounds, including Jake’s music coming through his speakers, were recorded on location to form an accurate portrait - though the sounds and images were recorded separately so it’s still all a calculated construction.

we-the-people-ben-rivers.jpgWe the People, 2004 

WR: Where do you draw your influences from, and are references to cinema history important to you?

BR: Acknowledging cinema history is important, but I'm not interested in making parodies or homages. Coming from a background as a film programmer, which I started to do at Art College, then continued with the Brighton Cinematheque for about ten years, it's hard to think about influences. There are certain films and movements which have had a strong hold on me; German expressionism and Hammer Horror were probably the earliest. I was still at school when I saw those kinds of films. George Kuchar and Margaret Tait were the first two independent filmmakers I saw, and they have both had an influence, particularly with their sense of freedom and intuitiveness. This led me to Sydney Peterson and Ron Rice, and then other experimental filmmakers who have incorporated narrative into their films; Larry Jordan, Patrick Bokanowski, John Smith, Ghosts before breakfast by Hans Richter, Walerian Boroczyk, Vampyr by Carl Dreyer, weird 70s TV, Werner Herzog, Man Ray - I could go on for ages. Making films is influenced by so many other things like walking and daydreaming, listening to music, reading books, unconscious accidents.

WR: The traces of narrative in your work often seem to be caught up in never-ending cycles and your edits can appear to re-arrange themselves with each viewing. Do you consider yourself as a storyteller?

BR: I see most of my films as narrative films, and have always liked the idea of telling stories, but without letting the film become a slave to it. For me narratives should be fragmented and open to go off on tangents. I like the idea that you thought the edit is re-arranging itself when you re-watch the films, this is what I hope to do. This is how I view life, with so many things happening at once and the possibility of being part way through something and getting sidetracked by something else.

joy-of-walking-ben-rivers.jpgThe Joy of Walking, 1999 

WR: Do you have any resistance towards the modern world, and more specifically technology?

BR: I wouldn't say I have a resistance towards the modern world, which, although it's terrifying, I like being a part of. Though my work may be inspired by, as Herzog calls it, ‘the lack of adequate images in the world’. The only place I seem to see these images is in the realms of experimental and artists’ film/video, and the occasional feature. I don't feel I have a resistance to technology. I'm not a film purest, if money permits I will get a print made, but sometimes I get the film telecinied and edit on my computer and screen digitally. I'm not averse to the mixing of mediums. I also think there are terrors in the ancient countryside to match the nightmares of central Tokyo.

WR: You process your films by hand and find ways to work with a costly medium. Why do you use film?

BR: Film allows for unexpected things to happen, and not being the current medium, is somehow harder to date, which suits my ideas and working process. The time between filming and seeing the results is important, where there’s an element of risk that isn’t present using video. Over the last five years I've been processing film myself and I like the way that hand processing makes it immediately apparent that you’re watching a film. This is accentuated by leaving things a bit rough around the edges, like not cleaning and drying the film properly. Film for me is about my own enjoyment, I really don't feel part of a debate between film and digital. People should just use the medium they are comfortable with, which responds to their ideas and their practical means. I’ve found ways of making films cheaply, so until it becomes a financial necessity I’ll probably continue. People often donate old film stock to me, so if you hear of any knocking around...

William Rose is a film programmer based in Leeds. He is Programme Director at Lumen, and Director of the annual Evolution festival. See for more information.