British avant-garde filmmaker/artist Ben Rivers has spent much of his career blending ethnographic documentary and fiction. Witness his 2011 short Slow Action, in which he used footage captured from four different islands and, simply by virtue of adding academic-sounding voiceover narration and an ambient electronic score, fashioned post-apocalyptic faux-anthropological science-fiction out of it. And then there’s his recent collaboration with fellow British avant-gardist Ben Russell, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which plunked a nameless character into three different real-world milieus in a fictional search for existential identity.
Consider his latest feature, then—The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers—his 8½: a film about filmmaking that doubles as an investigation of his own working methods.
The lengthy title is a passage from a Paul Bowles short story that Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe (he of the similarly self-reflexive 2010 film You All Are Captains) reads onscreen in the film’s first scene before admitting he has no idea what it means. Such cluelessness feeds into the film-within-a-film we see Laxe (playing himself) and his crew shooting in Morocco during the first half. Laxe is more or less playing the filmmaking equivalent of the Professor in Bowles’s famous short story “A Distant Episode”: the condescending non-native who comes into an African country and exploits its people for his own purposes. But then Laxe drives away from his shoot, randomly follows a Moroccan… and suddenly finds himself thrust into an exotic nightmare that plays like a modern variation of what befalls the Professor in Bowles’s story—right down to the tongue-ripping and the suit made out of tin cans that indigenous Moroccans force onto Laxe before trying to sell him into slavery.
It’s in this second half that the limitations of Rivers’s self-inquiry become disappointingly apparent. Much of the thrill of the first half comes from the slyly subversive sense that Rivers is much more interested in the natives observing Laxe’s production than in detailing the production itself. But when fiction almost fully takes over in its second half, Rivers’s ethnographic self-awareness isn’t enough to offset the unsettling sense that he’s basically treating these Moroccans as a frightening Other as much as Laxe and Bowles are.