RIVER RITES – Interview with BEN RUSSELL: “I never thought about film as a tool for translation but rather as a way of conjuring, as a means for bringing the unseen out of the shadows and transforming time into a body that we all could understand.”

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Luciana Dumitru: Michel de Certeau writes about the experience of a French travel writer, Jean de Léry, in Tupi, using the term “remainder” for that which couldn’t be translated (into words). In Léry’s case, the overwhelming (subjective) aural and visual pleasures, from the language he couldn’t understand and strange sounds to the visceral experiences of being surrounded by naked bodies. De Certeau says “proximity is presence without possession.”  In your experience of living within the community of Saramaccan animists can you talk about “remainders” that you wanted to pin down? If so, how did film help you? More importantly, what are the “remainders” of this film – RIVER RITES (which is different from the lived experience)?

BEN RUSSELL: The years that I spent in Suriname were much less romantic than de Léry’s travels sound – that place was often complicated and strange but somehow always quite familiar, especially when I was in it.  Because of this, I never thought about film as a tool for translation but rather as a way of conjuring, as a means for bringing the unseen out of the shadows and transforming time into a body that we all could understand. 

Luciana Dumitru: RIVER RITES seems to succeed in transcending the Cartesian duality between mind and matter, by finding a kind of fluid perspective on otherness. It is an experimental ethnographic film. How do you define the sintagme “psychedelic ethnography” that you attribute to this film?

BEN RUSSELL: Psychedelic ethnography is a methodology, it is a means to an end. It couples the visceral subjective charge of psychedelia with ethnography’s claims to an objective understanding of the/a self.  The result is a dialectic that is both embodied and critical, in which the terrors and pleasures of getting lost are balanced by the necessity of knowing where and who and where and what we are, particularly in relation to those who are not us.

Luciana Dumitru: You have also called RIVER RITES a home movie, which, I understand, comes from the fact that you lived for two years in Suriname, in a rural community on the Upper Suriname River. I particularly like this image of home which includes otherness. In this sense, I would say your film is similar to an intention “not to speak about, just speak nearby” (linked also to making the invisible visible) that Trinh T. Minh-ha declares in the beginning of “Reassemblage”. Can you comment what a “home movie” means in this context which is, at the same time, a different culture?

BEN RUSSELL: My cinema isn’t about explanation or description, it isn’t invested in advancing any particular regime of knowledge.  Minh-ha’s notion of speaking nearby has to do with De Certeau’s proximity – home is a function of familiarity, unrestricted by culture. It is visible in the exchange of looks, felt through the distance between camera and subject.  Practically speaking, home is where you find shelter – and RIVER RITES happens to show the house that I built in both the opening and closing shots…

Luciana Dumitru: Your approach tries to be less exploitative by allowing agency to the human subjects your film. That is to say, by allowing agency, you don’t objectify them. My sense is that is you employ a “transcendental gaze”, a way of looking that is far from the pretension of objectivism and less exploitative, which, in this case, draws together two disparate worlds that share a common energy. “Allowing agency” means here a sort of active participation /collaboration of the ones you film (through improvisation, fictionalizing of their actions), while being aware of the camera or how do you translate it?

BEN RUSSELL: Cinema is necessarily exploitative – there’s no way around that. Power is not uni-directional, however, and it’s important to recognize that all subjects have agency as long as they know that they are being filmed.  I always pay my participants for their time and energy, and during the process I try to stay as visible  as possible.  I encourage collaboration, but since my films are never simply the event filmed, I give myself license to orchestrate the moment to become the thing that I want.

Luciana Dumitru: At the beginning of the film things are rather observed as they develop naturally. One hears the unknown languages, the voices and the sounds of the river. But then, there is an aural displacement. A trance sound pertaining to another space invades the images. I find it a way to show an irreducible distance and, simultaneously,  a way to understand their spiritual experience using your own frame.

BEN RUSSELL: This is along the lines of what I was trying to produce – the collapse of two  spaces into one, tied together by parallel experiences occurring on entirely different parts of the globe. 

Luciana Dumitru: Time is unbecoming in your film, one can talk about an “undoing temporality”. It destabilizes any structural look trying to make sense of what is actually going on. Instead, the attention moves on the bodies, movements (in reverse) and rhythms. I can see how it connects with the idea of rites in the everyday. I am curious about your intention in using this kind of temporality.

BEN RUSSELL: Time is a subject, it is the body that animates us.  I don’t know what else I can add to this.

Luciana Dumitru: Your films are not interested in representation (of reality). However, did you have any initial concerns/strategies related to how black bodies are represented here?

BEN RUSSELL: Of course – my education took place in the throes of post-colonial theory, and it took me years and years to be able to make films about any bodies, black or otherwise. I took refuge in past and future histories, consciously avoided making a cinema of the present until the present declared itself to be the most critical time to address.

Luciana Dumitru: I assume you believe in medium specificity. Can you say something about your preference for (the materiality and physicality of) celluloid in the case of “River Rites” ?

BEN RUSSELL: I believe in specificity, across the board.  I find the ahistoric, alchemical, and physical character of celluloid to be enough reason to use it until I can’t use it anymore – it is the language of myth, the image of history, a perpetual lesson in economy and faith.  The latter two are especially useful to me – the limits of celluloid (cost, duration per roll) force me to make better decisions, place me into a more productive and accepting relationship with the world. 

Luciana Dumitru: I find your film favoring sensorial images, embodied visions, also a sense of community and the sacred in the profane. It certainly has a kind of magic. How do you expect the film to affect spectatorship?

BEN RUSSELL: I hope for all of these things to be conjured up – sensuousness, embodiment, collective spirit – but as the author of the text, I’m sure that I will never know if this is the case.  Cinema leads multiple lives…

Luciana Dumitru: Some film theorists (and historians) claim that the ethnographic film part of the early cinema was experimental through its different techniques and strategies of representation of an ethnographic body, before ethnographic film became purposely experimental (e.g. Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner). Do you have any favorite films from that period? What other experimental (ethnographic) directors/video artists do you like and are for you a source of inspiration?  And why?

BEN RUSSELL: “Documentary” films are the first works that I was exposed to in university, and maybe because of their particular frame I always assumed that the Lumiere films, along with films like Thomas Edison’s ELECTROCUTING AN ELEPHANT and Robert Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH were half-constructions at best. The fiction of the mise-en-scene was thrilling, and I had a near-ecstatic moment when I first saw Buñuel’s “Land Without Bread” and observed those tendencies being self-consciously realized.

As for the rest, I’ve found a lot to marvel at in Renzo Marten’s “Enjoy Poverty”, Maya Deren’s “Divine Horsemen” (without the sound), Gardner’s “Forest of Bliss”, Chagnon’s “Children’s Magical Death”,  Luis Ospina’s “Vampires of Poverty”, Rouch’s “Horendi”, Eva Rodbro’s “I Touched Her Legs”, Conner’s “Crossroads”, and Brakhage’s “Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”.  All of these are ethnographies, right?  There are so many more!  I think they all have a tenuous link to truth-telling, hedge their bets on uncertainty and pleasure.

Luciana Dumitru: The ritual and the ecstatic appear in many of your films. Can you say a little bit about the concept of journey in relation to these?  – this question might be repetitive after explaining what psychedelic ethnography is.  But not necessarily, especially that here you can talk about how it “applies” to different films you made.

BEN RUSSELL: I can only answer this anecdotally, I think. After the first time I took hallucinogens, I remember being shocked at how long the time of the trip seemed – as if I’d been camping in the woods for weeks.  The intensity and sheer quantity of experience didn’t seem like it could have been contained within the few hours that had passed. I realized later that this was often my experience of cinema – a medium whose defining character is time itself.  Cinema as a journey that carries us with it. 

Luciana Dumitru: You have a critical theory background in film/video/new media (also in art and semiotics), you were a lecturer in art and you are a curator. How did theory shape you as an artist?

BEN RUSSELL: Completely – although I’m happy to have been introduced to it at an early-enough point to be able to take the things I wanted and to leave the others behind.  Realizing that form and content are the same was a true revelation for me.

Luciana Dumitru: Leslie Thornton was your “supervisor”, at some point. You’ve also collaborated with Ben Rivers. What are the most important things you have learned from them?

BEN RUSSELL: Leslie was the person who taught me to make films, although she might’ve just opened up the door and pointed.  She passively asserted the significance of intuition as a driving creative force, reinforced the significance of staying hungry.  It took me five years to realize this, however.  As for Ben, he’s a great friend and a true visionary, but we’re still too close for me to know what I’ve learned.

Luciana Dumitru: What interests you the most at the moment?

BEN RUSSELL: Finding a place to make analog beat-based music that uses synthesizers and sequencers but doesn’t rely on samples.  I’m ready to start another band.


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