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Shamanic Cinema: Ben Russell’s “River Rites”

July 6, 2013
Ben Russell, "River Rites"

Film still from Ben Russell’s “River Rites,” 2011.

“The real skill of the practitioner [of magic] lies not in skilled concealment but in the skilled revelation of skilled concealment. Magic is efficacious not despite the trick but on account of its exposure.”
— Michael Taussig, from the essay Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic

River Rites exposes three realms of existence, and filmmaker Ben Russell leads us through all of them. The first realm is the world of the subjects of the film, a small community of Saramaccan animists at a sacred river in Northern Suriname. We, the audience, witness a world that is lushly sensorial. The sound of rushing water through the reeds conjures its coolness; our toes almost squish the red clay, almost feel the grit of the stone where the water drips. But as soon as an inhabitant of this world appears, we know this place does not belong to us, and we remember that we are not really there. The first subject that we see is a shirtless Saramaccan man in his early thirties, his solemn expression surprising for someone found frolicking in a river on a warm day. A toddler enters his arms and they both turn to look directly into the eye of the camera, our eye. The expression implied by his gaze is ultimately unknowable, just as the gaze of every “other” is – maybe even the one we see in the mirror. But the stare of this man is so intense and serious. Is it a confrontation? An accusation? Suspicion? Whatever it is, it doesn’t suggest that he is gazing at someone who is a member of his “tribe”. All of this underscores the ultimate “otherness” not only of the man and the child that he holds, but also of the space they inhabit. We, most likely a Western urban audience who appreciates experimental ethnographic filmmaking, are not of his world. We are just visiting, watching, and we both know it. The Saramaccan gazes through the camera, to us, to our world, where we sit in the dark.

So the second realm then, is the realm of the audience. There we are, together. Our own little tribe of folks. In a ritualized setting, a darkened theater. The silent hush of the audience. The click and whir of the projector. Since I saw River Rites at REDCAT, an arts venue in downtown Los Angeles whose audience is made up to a large degree by Cal Arts students, faculty, alumni, and the people who love them, we truly are a clan of familiars. We all know the ritual, and partaking in that ritual is partially why we go to the cinema. In addition to the pleasure of looking at flickering images, going to the cinema is about reinforcing a sense of community, a sense of personal identity, the reification and expansion of our world view. This is us, this is our people, this is what we’re into. That’s how ritual functions in all cultures to some degree; spirit possession is not just about spirit possession, it’s also about community identity.

Russell, who was there at the screening and gave a Q&A, is clearly very aware of the cultural anthropology of filmmaking. He follows in the tradition of Jean Rouch, a tradition that problematizes the subject/object, observer/observed methodology of documentary filmmaking, and classical anthropology in general. Furthermore, many of his other works document the ritualistic, often ecstatic, actions and events within North American culture. An acid trip in the Badlands of Montana. A slamdance noise concert in Rhode Island. All of these in his Trypps series that document, as the name implies, people journeying through different levels of consciousness. But he doesn’t just document these states, as a filmmaker he creates them.

River Rites film still

Film still from Ben Russell’s “River Rites.” 2011.

Here we arrive at the third realm of River Rites, the cinematic realm. This is the world that no living subject inhabits, not the audience, nor the subjects of the film, not even the filmmaker. This realm is made up of the cinematic elements, light, sound, they travel through the cinematic apparatus: the camera, the editing software, the sound recorder, the projector. The cinematic realm exists purely in its immanence, inside its physical properties. The realm embodied in the cinematic apparatus is what makes the viewing of a film possible, there is no cinema without it. And yet, it is also the one place we as viewers can’t go. We can witness this realm and know it’s there, but we can’t travel through it. We only experience its residues.

By sitting in our realm, the darkened theater, we absorb the reflection of light and waves of sound from the third realm, the Cinematic Realm, through which the vision is conjured of the realm of the subjects of the film: the river in Suriname. But the River Realm is not the actual river; we do not see the actual people there — the filmmaker’s eye and skillful manipulation tricks us into thinking that we’re witnessing the real thing, but in fact what we see and hear is a collaboration between all three realms of cinematic existence. Experiencing this convergence, we hover then glide between the reeds. The state at first is calm, the river flows, children wade, foliage rustles. Then, in psychedelic parlance, we begin to peak. Children rush across the screen. Menacing noise music thunders, grinding us like sand beneath a wave. Water froths and bubbles, spewing out children, throwing them backwards, spiriting them out of the river where they land upright and sure-footed on the rocks. The subjects exclaim exuberantly in a language we don’t understand, and because of the clearly foreign landscape, we don’t expect to. But even if the children were speaking English, we still wouldn’t understand because the film is being played backwards, which we don’t realize at first. The entire film is executed in a single take, so the artifice of the cinema created through editing is not immediately apparent. Until it is. Until it slowly becomes undeniable. And the degree of control and manipulation utilized by the filmmaker becomes a powerful, enjoyable trick. Up until this point we’d forgotten how we were being manipulated. We ignored how our gaze had been completely controlled. But small revelations, increasingly difficult to ignore, begin to make us aware that we are dreaming.

Ben Russell

Film still from Ben Russell’s “River Rites”. 2011.

For example, we wanted to scan the environment, to turn around, to get an establishing point of view. But the frame is held tight, he won’t let us step back or turn our heads; we can only see the things that flow in and out of the frame of their own volition. The water folk careen through the mise en scene, spin through it, fly out like river birds. And we know it’s only a trick of the technology that makes the figures fly. And we know the noise music, added in post by the filmmaker, is serving to create a moment of great power and intensity, and is not actually native to the world of the subjects of the film. And finally too, we realize the film is being sped up and slowed down: time is being manipulated mechanically by the filmmaker. All the cinematic devices and techniques are being used to create this shamanic space. We know this. And yet we believe the trick. And as long as the trick is executed well, and the seams aren’t too apparent, we will believe it, we want to believe it. We need it. We are witnesses to the shaman filmmaker’s fictional world, but we will go along with the illusion as long as the distraction is complete and we are taken in. It’s the manipulation of these different realms, their layering, their skillful revelation and concealment, that gives River Rites such power.

What’s interesting for me is this: in the West we often think of shamanism as something that is taking place in an “other” culture, something that is the exotic subject of ethnographic filmmaking. Ben Russell’s work makes very apparent that we are engaged in those same practices here within our own communities, whether it’s through the stress induced ecstasy of a slamdance concert, or the suspension of reality that occurs in a movie theater on the corner of First and Hope. The magic of art is that it makes visible the things hidden in plain sight. It creates new worlds, documents foreign realms, and those so familiar and close that we aren’t even aware of them. The practice of artist as shaman then is to lead the audience through these different realms in way that brings about phenomenological, cognitive, and spiritual revelation – in this Ben Russell is one of the true masters.

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