“Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still.” - Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Ben Rivers’ documentary feature Two Years at Sea, playing in the Experimenta strand at the London Film Festival, follows Jake Williams (also the subject of one of Rivers’ earlier short films) over the course of two years; a man living in complete isolation in a tumbledown home nestled amidst a magnificent forest, a self-imposed solitary exile from society and modernity. Free from dialogue or interaction with his subject, Rivers’ film makes no attempt to psychologise his subject’s Walden-esque existence, documenting instead over a series of long, often static shots the minutiae of Jake’s self-sufficient relationship to his environment.
Close-ups of weathered photographs offer glimpses of a former life equally in thrall to nature; one spent with friends or family members, now simply ghosts adrift in memory. We watch Jake wake and shower, fetch water and firewood, and in an extraordinary single shot build a raft from an inflatable mattress, taking to the water to fish. His existence is one seeming to grow out of as much as disappear into his surroundings, the ramshackle remnants of modern life which fill his home reconstituted to new purpose, the house itself slowly fusing itself to the landscape. Jake too, as in certain shots reflections of foliage in the windows of his campervan create an impression of the landscape enveloping him, consuming him as he rests.
This symbiosis of the organic and mechanical is beautifully captured by Rivers’ monochrome photography; shooting on reclaimed 16mm Bolex cameras, the shifting textures of the images have a makeshift feel, as though the camera were put together by Jake from parts found in one of his many junk-filled cupboards, the pops and crackles of his bonfire at the end mirrored by those of the celluloid, the flares and white-outs adding to the very fabric of the photographed scenery; the film itself acting on what its capturing.
The serenity of Jake’s gaze in the breathtaking final shot speaks more than an hour of interview footage could, it’s a privilege to be able spend 90 minutes in the company of such an extraordinary individual, one with seemingly no need for human interaction of any kind and it’s a measure of Rivers’ respectful directorial stance that his/our presence never feels intrusive. Much as when the camera looks out from the window of Jake’s observation-tower creation, over the silent, snow-capped forest, one can begin to understand his reason for being there; when it takes in Jake, gazing through the same window, one can equally understand Rivers’ reason too.
Two Years at Sea – 2011 – United Kingdom – 88 mins – Dir : Ben Rivers
Two Years at Sea is screening at the London Film Festival on 21st & 24th October.
Tickets are available here.