As Boyd van Hoeij notes in the Hollywood Reporter, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is the “first feature-length collaboration of British artist-filmmaker Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) and his U.S. colleague and namesake, Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May),” though they have previously “toured together with a program called We Can Not Exist in this World Alone, which combined shorts of each artist, also shot on 16mm, and their feature explores similar ethnographic themes and cinematic techniques. Spell’s essentially a triptych in which only one character is carried over from one section to the next: the eye-catching Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, a Brooklyn-based musician who often performs as Lichens. Lowe here incarnates a nameless man who wanders through a small, English-language commune in Estonia.”
Introducing his interview with Rivers and Russell for the Notebook, Adam Cook calls Spell “a three-part manifesto on the potential for utopian living, and a loose, fluid (distinctly apolitical and secular) definition of what that may be. Beginning in a commune in the Lofoten Islands, Rivers and Russell fleetingly document moments of life, music and conversation among a peaceful collective of people, before jarringly switching to a portrayal of a tranquil solitude in the wilderness of Northern Finland as a figure canoes and settles on the shore, and, finally, a black metal performance in Norway. These three parts are seemingly disparate, but tonally unite in Rivers and Russell’s unbiased presentation.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “The directors never stray far from fantastic imagery that elevates their meandering collage, starting with the first shot, a 360-degree view of a lake at dusk set to the low sound of chanting that infuses the material with a mixture of awe and dread. The ensuing scenes explore the daily routine of an Estonian commune where various residents wander around in the nude, play with their children at the beach, hang out in the sauna and engage in rambling spiritual chatter. It’s here that Spell first hints at an overarching focus on the possibilities of utopia through the somewhat heavy-handed but equally provocative dialogue of the commune dwellers… With its unhurried pace, Spell nicely contrasts the concept of collective utopia with the prospects of solitary respite.”
Update, 8/23: Spell “pairs ideas and themes from each of its directors’ previous solo work,” finds Michael Pattison, writing for Criticwire. “Meandering and unwieldy, the film resembles in its middle segment Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011), and its concluding scene reaches the intensely cathartic heights of Russell’s own ethnographic foray, Let Each One Go Where He May (2009).”
Update, 9/1: Michael Sicinski introduces an interview with Rivers and Russell for Cinema Scope: “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness finds their styles melding in the most fascinating ways. There has been a more reserved attitude in many of Rivers’ films, a desire to hang back with patient curiosity, which is distinct from Russell’s more agitated approach. What’s more, Russell’s films have often favored group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies.”
Update, 9/8: “The film is less of a character study than it is the directors’ romantic pursuit of a ‘secular spirituality’ through the dramatization of stunning natural spaces,” writes Mike Ryan at Filmmaker.
Update, 9/14: The commune, Rivers tells Coleen Fitzgibbon in BOMB, is “both actual and fictional, in the same way that Jake is actual and fictional in Two Years at Sea. This is what Ben and I both do, we mix actual situations with things we need, in order to make the film that we want. It’s about setting up the right conditions to make not a representation, but something that exists on the screen in and of itself.”
Updates, 9/15: “Ben Rivers and Ben Russell create what we might call a liminal cinema.” Michael Sicinski explains here in Keyframe.
“My favorite in Wavelengths, and the entire festival,” writes R. Emmet Sweeney, dispatching to the L from Toronto, “is Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a feature-length search for the secular sublime.” He walks us through the sections, and then: “The last section is a convulsive catharsis. Lowe applies the white ‘corpse paint’ of black metal bands, and ascends to the stage to perform a blistering set with the super group Queequeg (with Americans Weasel Walter and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix). The devotional faces from the crowd emerge from inky blacks, Russell and Rivers shooting in low-light with Super 16mm cameras. Wavering in and out darkness and focus, they seem liquid, a mass of metal parishioners receiving absolution in the sonic assault, until Lowe removes the paint and dons his human face once again.”
Update, 9/17: “The varied locales, ethnographic bent and pseudo-documentary aesthetic are certainly consistent with the work of both filmmakers,” writes Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online. “This collaboration, however, has yielded a consistently stimulating work of genuine existential import, creating a distinctive poetry out of man’s search for identity.”
Update, 9/19: “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is brimming with the interpretive handiwork of true-blue auteurs on the fringe, every frame asking for the full attention and contemplative analysis of its viewers,” writes Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema. “The line between non-fiction and composed illusion is deliberately muddied, and yet, there is a clear ethnologic exploration within. It’s a film that demands an inquiring mind, but come with questions and Rivers and Russell deftly provide a wealth of beautifully lensed, purposefully constructed, cinematic responses in the form of a collective feedback loop of tortured souls and resuscitated spirits.”
Update, 10/3: Agnieszka Gratza interviews the Bens for frieze.
2013 Indexes: Locarno and Toronto. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.