Film Reviews

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, 2014)

A scene from A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2014) opens with a lengthy take of a lake at night, drifting, altering perspective, varying light intensity and using film grain as an artistic means of expression. From here we move to an Estonian commune populated by an array of eccentric figures and shot in a style which recalls the work of cinéma vérité pioneers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. Quietly, inconspicuously, the directors focus on one unnamed, bearded figure played by Robert A.A. Lowe. After this sequence, the film takes on a more minimalist and meditative turn, fixating the camera on the isolated experience of this figure in the Finnish hinterlands. Finally, in the film’s third sequence (each is broken up by a substantial chunk of darkness which recalls similar techniques used in Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984), this nameless figure appears on stage playing in a black metal band in an anonymous club in Oslo.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2014) is an experimental feature directed by Ben Rivers, whose ‘slow cinema’ feature Two Years at Sea (2011) played at the Slow Cinema Festival I spoke about in an earlier entry, and Ben Russell, whose feature debut Let Each One Go Where He May (2009) played to acclaim a few years ago. As the film resides in the amorphous territory between art house film feature, experimental cinema and video art, it raises a number of questions about categorisation: are there limits to what we understand as art cinema, at which point do films encroach into the territory associated with the gallery space etc.?

It is a quiet, meandering film whose pleasures are predominately visual and contemplative. As it is the type of film that academic film studies regularly ignores, it is one that I have unfortunately not had a chance to see or study in the past three years. Watching its opening shot, I was taken back to my pre-University cinematic education, where the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Nuri Bilge Ceylan et al. transfixed and hypnotised me on a regular basis. As meanings are elusive and opaque, it is the kind of cinema that is difficult to talk about in both an academic and journalistic context, but one which enthrals in a way which I would argue language fails to communicate. Through viewing A Spell to Ward off the Darkness – especially its final two sequences – I was placed in a trancelike state, hypnotised by its visuals and droning score. The film is a powerful and welcome experience and is highly recommended.

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