Ben Rivers’ long titled film possesses the ascetic, ironic beauty of Two Years at Sea, married to the more philosophical reflections of Slow Action. The first half of the film follows the filming of a movie being made by a young Frenchman in Morocco, in the Atlas mountains and the desert. Rivers’ film is a documentary, following the real crew, making a real film. Rivers’ camera is a mildly subversive presence, observing the niceties of the European and North African worlds meeting; the difficulties of filming under taxing conditions. The film director mooches around looking suitably moody. It’s entertaining, but it feels slightly inconsequential. Then, at the midway point, the director gets into his 4x4, drives to a remote desert hotel, gets kidnapped and is used as a dancing tin-can gimp by a group of Moroccan bandits.
The switch in tone is completely unexpected and hypnotising. The man who is supposedly making entertainment for the European masses instead becomes a source of entertainment for the third world minority. The second half of Rivers’ film is apparently adapted from a Paul Bowles story, but it would be wrong to see it as being a separate entity from the first half. The moment of ultimate horror, for the director, after all that he has unwittingly suffered, is the sight of a blank TV screen. It may not be the most subtle of messages, but it would appear that Rivers is questioning the whole nature of our idea of what entertainment is or should be. He does so with a deadpan humour which hints at the more profound disunities of the modern world. When the tables are turned, and only then perhaps, will we begin to understand the vacuity of that which we presently consider entertaining.
Which is not to say that this is a worthy or dour film. It seems unlikely that Rivers is ever going to belong to the mainstream. Which again raises questions about what the function of cinema is or should be. Is it to observe, to reflect the world, or is it to tell stories, stories which might be mundane? In some of the scenes from the film the director is making, we see moments of real engagement from the Moroccan actors, which suggest a whole narrative whose content we never learn. (We also don’t know if these moments belong to the Frenchman’s film itself or are observations stolen by Rivers.) These flashes contain a humanity encapsulated in the angry shake of a head or a captured smile. We are outside the story, looking in. Later, we are inside the story, as we empathise with the director’s fate. Rivers, it seems, wants us to be both Brechtian observers and committed servants of his narrative. On the whole it’s the second side of the coin which determines how we watch film in this day and age. The early cinema, which caused amazement by doing nothing more than reflecting the world as it was, has lost its sway. We need the screen to dance; the director’s fate is a parody of our restricted expectations. The film’s earlier, observational take, has no place in the modern cinema; instead we look to rediscover the Wizard’s of Oz’s tin man in every film we choose to watch. If it doesn’t have pathos, if it doesn’t dance a jig, it doesn’t exist.