Documentary of the week – 2 Years at Sea

Ben Rivers (2011)

Ben Rivers is an experimental artist whose work is more usually seen in galleries than cinemas. This film, winner of a FIPRESCI prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, (2011) is his first full length feature. It’s a disarming portrait of Jake Williams, subject of a previous short by Rivers, an amiable and eccentric fellow who lives alone in a remote spot in Scotland in a tumbledown cottage which has grown organically over the years to incorporate new lean-tos, a caravan and car or two, and numerous sheds. All are full of ‘things that will come in useful one day’, and indeed we see him perform cock-eyed wonders, like the raft he makes (‘been meaning to do it for months’) out of an old patched Li-lo, empty carboys, twine and various bits of other half-broken things.

At the Q&A Jake expressed genuine surprise that being filmed by Ben might have made him uncomfortable in any way or act up for the camera – ‘but that would have meant me acting myself… people don’t do that,’ he said incredulously, little thinking that many in his metropolitan audience probably do, most of the time. But Jake’s simplicity, definitely not naivety, carries us through the humdrum and sometimes amusing nature of his day. Like his cottage, he seems to have become almost an organic part of the landscape, underlined when he takes impromptu naps a in odd locations that take his fancy – a caravan he’s just opened up for what looks like the first time for many weeks, a heathery pasture – and almost blends into the background. Meanwhile benevolent, rampant nature surrounds and smooths over the ramshackle mark his being there has made on the landscape, taking it into itself. Inside old photographs tell a partial tale of a past life he’s left behind. Rivers’ use of old cameras and film makes the medium itself as hazy and gloriously dappled as the dusty interiors and typical northern British weather.

You end the film thinking you’ve seen a portrait of a charming solitary man content with his own company, but there’s more – afterwards up popped an ebullient tartan-betrousered Jake to take questions, totally relaxed in front of a full house, revealing another side of his life – partying visitors, a daughter who comes to stay – and you realise that it isn’t just a picture of a recluse, but of someone so at ease with himself that he is equally comfortable alone for weeks on end, and with company; dozing in the fields or patching up his roof, or making a roomful of people laugh: that rare thing, a totally happy man.

London Film Festival October 2011


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