Doused in a natural ethnography based upon the landscape, A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (2013) is a strangely hypnotic mixture of fact and fiction by filmmakers, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell. Both have come from making shorter works and the episodic sense of place and the perspectives of time are all questioned through visual sociology and a natural embarkation of documentary film.
There’s little point in trying to pin some narrative structure upon A Spell; if anything, the film seems far more like an essay film built on that blurred line between fiction and reality. This is an area that Rivers in particular is well versed in, especially in his 2011 feature Two Years At Sea. The same feeling of captured, reactionary fiction is prevalent, following several communes in different landscapes before using its final structural third to present the subject of its title. The film begins with a dreamy single shot of a huge lake almost before dawn. The isolation of such a shot is later verified with a new perspective being attributed to it but, as an opening, it’s one of the most alluring in film so far this year. A Spell then goes on to chart the communities living in landscapes of Estonia and Finland, easily labelled as modern-day counter-culture communes. The camera disjointedly follows several people about as they perform their daily rituals and chores, ranging from simply eating and looking after their children to taking saunas and building strangely philosophical structures on their land.
Similarly to Two Years At Sea, the camera enjoys focussing on the remnants of objects; things that represent the presence of people but in different tenses of time. Bottles of beer in a bath hint at future happenings but the bathtub itself is of the place’s past. Equally, trashy magazines that are getting tattered and rotting seem to suggest a past that was more in the centre of society rather than on the fringe where the commune is shown to occupy now. The people and their lifestyles seem so naturally evolved from their surroundings and by each other’s presence that it quickly becomes clear that both Rivers and Russell are seeking to document it and, by doing so, protect it.
This is the crux of A Spell‘s methodology and ultimately where its enjoyment most lies. During the second third of the film, a character wanders off into the outback where several rituals seem to take place. Something more esoteric has already been implied, both by the stone circle of the commune and an almost subliminal symbolic image that appears on screen between chapters. Rivers recreates some of Jake’s tendencies, showing this new character fishing and enjoying the solitude of a small place in a forest. The colours of this chapter in particular are simply beautiful, the forest looking haunted and creaking with something spellbinding.
As this character forms his final ritual, painting his face white and burning a small hut, we merge to the final and most controversial chapter. Several reviewers have already complained about this segment of the film; it consists of footage from a Black Metal concert, presenting almost three songs in their entirety before ending the film with the lone man walking out onto the streets of Oslo. This at first appears to have no relevance to anything that has gone before other than its relation to the lone man whose painted face now fits in with the other performers of the band. The fact that it has put several reviewers off is absolutely perfect for what the film is about and what its title suggests.
The previous two chapters have shown perfect, intimate, but ultimately delicate worlds; sociological groups outside of the normal boundaries of modern, western society. It would take very little from the more commercial, the more normal and greedy world of the cities to dismantle such a natural diversity. The title, A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, refers to this final chapter which is an accurate cultural defence of the first two. The outer cultural practices of Black Metal offend the norms of the viewers, the normality of the life they lead and the insistence that any way of life and culture outside of theirs is abnormal. The title perhaps refers to this section and its music; the cultural action being enough to “ward off the darkness”. The darkness is the spectre of conformity.
Because of this fascinating structure and its will power (which can even ward off certain types of viewer who are after more docile pleasures), A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness is at once a clever and cryptic artefact of an essay film. It presents new methods of living by ultimately moving backwards in time, presenting a timeless and loose reality of sociological models. Rivers and Russell may need more than Black Metal to ward off the darkness and its norms permanently but, for now, it is working superbly well and may just be one of the films of the year.
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is out now in selected cinemas.