The unsettling skeleton of Paul Bowles’ short story A Distant Episode gives a narrative framework to Ben Rivers latest odyssey into the ethereal unknown. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) is a beguiling meditation on the nature of cinematic memory wrapped around the bones of Bowles’ plot and it while it is unlikely to convert those previously resistant to the director’s work, his many admirers will find much to admire. The feature element of a wider piece (there was an installation at Television Centre, London) it is an elusive blend of documentary and fiction, that makes fresh and unique footprints in much-trodden sand.
That sand is in the Moroccan Sahara where Rivers and his co-editor, Benjamin Mirguet, cut together behind-the-scenes footage from the shooting of two recent features films with musical interludes and ethnographic asides. There is no action besides that being shouted by directors Shezad Dawood and Oliver Laxe but the camera rolls over the stunning Atlas Mountains; a disarmingly familiar landscape. Cinema has long told stories in Morocco – though not of it. The title, taken from the original text, is described in an early direct-to-camera reading by Laxe as making someone feel “that Satan was nearby”. As the film slides into fantasy, Laxe abandons the set and follows a mysterious man into the night.
From this point onwards, Laxe appears on screen clad in a masked costume covered in tin can lids and paraded around by these miscreants as some kind of mute dancing fool. “You came here and circled around trouble,” one of them hisses at him, “you looked for it and it found you.” Carried around the rocky locale in his jangling would-be motley, he and his captors are like one of the bizarre inhabitants of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). But convoluted stories-within-stories are not Rivers’ wheelhouse; here the broken down ruins are the remnants of old film sets – this is a far more primal play on the nature of cinematic storytelling. And particularly our cinematic storytelling. Allusions even come in the form of moments borrowed from western film – a sequence in which one of the bandits shoots at Laxe’s feet to make him dance holds particular cultural irony and resonance. As time passes – though how much remains unknown – Laxe seems to lose himself to his new position, becoming almost as exotically inscrutable as the country by which he himself was enamoured. While there is nothing as evocative as the musical performance in the final section of 2013’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, watching a band play and Laxe flail holds the lightest notes of Ahmed El Maanouni’s revelatory Trances. Rivers intersperses local man performing rudimentary magic tricks and hints of village life, but nothing that breaks down the facade. There are no answers here, as there were not in Bowles original story, but there are fascinating questions about the paths we travel and the tracks we leave behind.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.