Narrative is not even a remote concern for Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, the co-directors of the experimental mixed-media art documentary, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2014). Carved into three distinct acts, their film ostensibly follows the wanderings (or wonderings) of a man – musician and artist Robert A.A. Lowe – through an Estonian free-loving commune; an isolated stretch in a beautiful, desolate forest; and playing in a Norwegian metal band. Glacially paced with little incident, this is cinema as visual poetry, exploring our relationships what is around and within us. It is lyrical, oblique and completely bewitching even if it is never entirely satisfying.
It has long been claimed that art is a mirror, held up to humanity, and this is absolutely the key to films like A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness; with audiences taking away as much as they bring to it. For some, the lack of plot of any kind – attempting to divine one would be facile – may be off-putting, not to mention a dogged refusal on the part of the filmmakers to offer answers, or arguably even questions. Instead, they delicately observe and in doing so open audiences up to grand philosophical reflection on anything from inner peace, to sexual freedom, to man’s apparent dominion on Earth. The initial shot, that spends several minutes surveying a crisp and still lake, is an ideal litmus test – tire of it and this is unlikely to be the film for you, grow ever more enrapt and you’re in for a treat.
The first segment adopts an almost vérité style in an English-speaking commune in Estonia; a man revealing his experience of a kind-of orgy in which a room full of people inserted their fingers into each other’s anus’ at random is probably the highlight. Utterly irresistible, however, the second act, which seems to slowly seep into the soul and take root there. Encroaching on nature is man, and on him are inescapable cultural motifs – the magazine pages lining his shack. After half an hour, the rhythms, forged through grainy close-ups of woodland floors and moss covered trees, are in sync with your own and the section ending in a blaze feels as devastating as it is mesmeric. Whether the flames signify a rejection of social norms, or a return to them, is for the individual viewer to decipher.
The final part is equally captivating, juxtaposing the eerily picturesque outdoors and grace of nature for the darkness of a subterranean club and the grunts and howls of metal music. An sonic sensation after the near silence of the woodland, it raises its lines of inquiry aurally rather than through meticulous visuals. It’s a bold and challenging move that doesn’t quite come off, but gives A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness an ecstatic conclusion. Whether its triptych of journeys into the human psyche linger will decide on its ultimate effect; but sufficed to say, that profundity will likely be dependant on the mind of the beholder.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson