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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Two Years at Sea, a film by Ben Rivers

'No man is an island', as John Donne wrote. Still, Jake Williams in Ben Rivers’ non-fiction film, Two Years at Sea (2012), seems to be one, living in the Scottish wilds on his own at one with nature and the elements – snow, mist, damp sun – in his own version of Henry Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, yet closer reflection shows that he is significantly connected to the rest of humanity through the film: his 'island' is shown off around the world, and judging by the prizes the film has won, celebrated too. So Jake may seem to be on his own but for the film to happen, there needs to be someone else with him wielding a camera, and then an audience to watch the finished results.

Putting that aside, is Jake the only person in the film? Apparently, but then apparently not: in so far as the film is in sections, each one is prefaced by a photograph. The first is of a woman, the second of a man building a stone wall, the third of an older man. Most teasingly, the last section is prefaced by a photo of a boy and a girl. The mind races to construct a poignant narrative: these are his children, present only through a photograph. Ditto, the photo of his wife. Then the bearded stonewaller is surely Jake when younger? I can do nothing with the photo of the older man. These are my constructions and I have no way of knowing whether they are right, not even whether I should call them poignant.

This air of mystery is among the film’s many virtues. Another is that it is virtually wordless, but certainly not soundless as we are given plenty of ambient noise, including a snatch of Jake's taste in LPs, which include folk music and ragas, character-defining in themselves. The spectator is in effect invited to construct what is happening, and not to fear contradiction because Rivers keeps matters open to the very end – a shot, several minutes long (how many minutes? no idea; the point of it is to make you lose a sense of time, to experience Jake's own decelerated time), of his face in the firelight, clearly illuminated initially in the flames, then passing into shadow and darkness as they die down. Any judgement on his interior thoughts is left to the spectator, for nothing is given away on the face, which offers as good an example of the 'involuntary expressive' as you could wish; no awareness of the camera, no performing for it, just Jake's 'automatic' presence, i.e. he is filmed doing things out of habit, like an automaton, with the result that there is a truth to his person mostly denied in so much film and television.

When I saw it the other day, for a second time, it was at the Britten Studio in Snape, Suffolk, with a live accompaniment by Talvin Singh. Singh sat cross-legged before the audience with the screen behind him, watching the film on a laptop beside him. He had five tabla drums in front of him, from which he summoned an arresting array of sounds, musical but also not musical, less an atmosphere directing the audience’s thoughts and feelings, more a sound texture to enrich the images not to explain them. This was musical impressionism worthy of Debussy and Takemitsu.

© Tim Cawkwell February 2013