web analytics

Ben Rivers Interview (Krabi, 2562)

A still from the film Krabi, 2562, where a small film production occurs on a beach in front of a small island.

Ben Rivers is an English filmmaker whose latest feature film, the hybrid documentary Krabi, 2562 (2019), is a collaboration with acclaimed Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong (Mundane History, By the Time It Gets Dark) commissioned by the Thailand Biennale. The film, shot on 16mm, follows a number of narrative strands that connect to form a snapshot of the town of Krabi now, as a tourist courting destination, and how the space reverberates throughout history and its inhabitants memories. The film had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where Christopher Heron met with Ben once again to talk about the making of the film, his collaborative relationship with Anocha, and their shared conceptual interests.

The Seventh Art: How did your collaboration with Anocha start for this film?

Ben Rivers: It was for the Thailand Biennale. Well, I was invited by the Biennale—

The same one referenced in the film?

Yeah, exactly. I was invited to make something and within minutes of getting that email and thinking about making a film in Thailand, I thought it would be nice to collaborate with a Thai person and Anocha came to my mind first. She’s a friend, I’ve known her for almost ten years. We met at Rotterdam Film Festival years ago and I really like her work: I think Mundane History (2009) and By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) are really brilliant. I emailed her asking if she felt like collaborating and she said yes. We went out to Krabi, which was where the Biennale was going to be taking place, to do a site visit. We started thinking about a short film and we did make a little short film very quickly, but during the process of investigating the area, meeting the people, seeing different sights, it quite quickly turned into a feature in our minds. We wanted to make something longer, because the area was so rich and we thought there were a lot of possibilities there that we wanted to try and pull together. In a way, I feel like the film is about that, the central character is the place: looking at different people within the community as a way of building a picture of a place that’s kind of in flux, I suppose. The world is always in flux, especially when humans are present. We were both interested in the place because it feels like it’s going to be the next big tourist spot in Thailand. It already is a tourist spot, but they’re trying to push it to become something much bigger and weirdly the Biennale was totally tied in with that; it’s government run and when you experience it from inside and know how it’s run, it’s certainly not just a cultural enterprise. There is other stuff going on there [laughs]. There’s not a lot of interest in the art necessarily, it’s just another thing to get people in. It’s the same as the Neanderthal, the fact that they found traces of early humans from 40,000 years ago, some cave paintings and some artifacts. That becomes a selling point to bring people.

The Neanderthal scenes in the film made me consider how a nation self-represents itself and its history and I was wondering whether that was something you wanted to interrogate or resist engaging with at all?

Yeah, definitely a bit. There’s something about how we shot them, we kind of wanted to be on the edge of being “fake”, like a diorama. It looks kind of realistic, but kind of fake-y, as well. One thing that was on my mind with those scenes was the [eponymous] George Saunders short story from Pastoralia (2000), there’s a theme park where they have these living dioramas and people have to stay in character. They have cave people in there and they’re not allowed to talk, so they talk surreptitiously to themselves, but mostly they have to stay in their character. That was one way of thinking about that scene, but it could also be completely different to that, like the film moving around in time and this is another slippage in time to 40,000 years ago when the actor of the commercial in the film confronts the real Neanderthal. Is that actually happening? We don’t have a definite answer about what exactly they are, which is kind of nice when you work collaboratively — when you don’t necessarily know the answer. It’s open to the interpretation of the themes, I think we both like playing around with those things and have done in the past. I think that’s where our films meet, the uncertainty behind an image and what’s real, what’s imaginary and what’s in-between. The interviews in the film, some are scripted and some are natural, but it doesn’t matter in the end which is which.

When you mentioned time slipping, I noticed the date the cinema is mentioned as opening changes in an interview versus the characters investigating it.

Yeah and the same with the old man with his house and his age. With the cinema example, [the slip] was planted, but with the old man it was just fluke. It’s great, it’s perfect for the film. It fits with the main character, who’s a fictional character and she changes her story slightly about who she is and what she’s doing there. The notion of facts is questionable. There’s definitely more than two registers.

The main character is a bit of a tourist unto herself because in the one version of her story she’s scouting locations, but in another her parents lived there one time. In your films there is often a visitor character that is coming to a space, was that something you were considering with this film?

Very much so, Anocha is not from there either, she had maybe been to Krabi as a visitor before and I’m obviously an outsider, a visitor. When we were travelling around in the first instance and we had this really great guide who introduced to a lot of these places and people — the character of the guide in the film is sort of based on the original one who took us around — so the character of the woman is an avatar for us as filmmakers visiting, trying to get to know an area from an outsider’s point of view. You get a fragmented picture of a place. I think the film came more from meeting the people who are in the film and trying to find a way to tie these pieces together, which is when you start introducing the fictional elements. Structurally, in the edit, we tried to complicate it in a way that we really don’t focus on the idea of the visitor too much as the plot of the film. We tried to find a balance where she’s a character who you follow, but at a certain point we realise as a viewer that the film is not about her, it’s about these other people. It’s a kind of mystery and has these mystery elements, but it’s not resolved in a usual sense of the mystery. The edit was really exciting in a way, finding the right way to bring these mirrors into the film. It could have been structured in so many ways — in fact, it was structured many different ways throughout the edit. Once things started clicking into place, you get these eureka feelings where you know things are going to come back at some point and there’s always a double to everything in the film somehow.

When the main character disappears, I had a eureka moment where as much as the tour guide was a guide to her who she ditches when she has a foothold, she’s a guide for the viewer and when you as a viewer have your foothold—

She can disappear, as well.

The connection means the film is a space, as well, that the viewer is free to explore to some extent.

That’s how we feel about it, so I’m glad it worked for you.

You shot with Anocha’s DP for the film [Ming-Kai Leung], how did you decide the visuals.

Yeah, it was interesting, it was the first time I worked with a DP pretty much. I kind of did [with Jorge Quintela] when me and Gabriel Abrantes worked together, but that was a bit different set-up. This was the first time I worked with a DP and sat at a monitor with Anocha, it was something I had been wanting to try for a long time and resisted it because I think through the camera. It really helps me to hold one and look through the viewfinder, move around physically. It was quite… strange… feeling to be sitting down. We just talked, we decided early on that it would be mostly locked-off camera, fairly static with occasional small movements when necessary. I did a few little bits of handheld, but apart from that we didn’t really talk that much about how we wanted to compose things, it was on the day. I have a pretty clear sense of how I want things to look, but I also try to let Kai do his thing as well, set things up. I suppose for me, I don’t normally use lighting or I try to avoid it as much as possible and use available light. Kai uses a bit more lighting, so that was interesting to work with in the interiors.

I recall that there’s a shot where the camera moves and it’s using only available light with a good deal of grain in the image that seemed more like your other work.

It could be when we’re inside a cove and we’re on the water and I’ve got the camera on my knees as the kayak moves, we’re tracking along the side and then I lift it up so you can see the top of the cove. Then it cuts behind her back, I was sitting behind her as she goes into the tunnel. That’s a shot I was quite happy with. There were a few days where Kai couldn’t shoot, but even when he couldn’t be there I kept him in mind and how he did things, to be respectful and not go completely outside. It worked well, I watched it the other night and was happy with the images. There’s something about Anocha’s films that she’s made with Kai that I was quite interested in: sometimes they shoot things quite classically, un-fussy. That loans something to Anocha’s films because they’re so strange and uncanny, but they can be shot in this classic composition. Somehow that makes them even stranger, they’re not shot in some weird, dreamy way.

The scene in the hotel lobby in this film gave that feeling because it’s very normal, but it’s very strange because of it.

Exactly, that’s a good example of what I was trying and failing to explain [laughs].

Did you always have the idea to include so many self-reflexive filmmaking or commercial-making elements in the film?

I feel like that’s something that was a knock-on from our last couple of features where we were interested in that type of self-reflexive nods to filmmaking. I think we’re both interested in continuing that because it relates to that idea of the visitor and why you end up in a place. We’re aware of how the film relates to us two, it’s not far from our life and experience of that place. It felt necessary to include that.

The film is political, everything is political, and what you said about the Biennale already, it makes you consider how nations represent themselves. For Anocha, I know her films are informed by her return to Thailand after the coup in 2006. Was a political component something you talked about?

Yeah, we definitely did and it’s in there. It’s a film that has various ghosts and phantoms in there and there’s especially the ghosts of military rule and monarchistic rule in there right from the start: the children [in the first scene] in an early stage of their lives doing a half-hour recitation every morning and there are a couple of scenes where you can hear the sound of soldiers marching. It’s in there, but we didn’t want to make it too explicit. We talked a lot about capitalism and the rampant capitalism of tourism. We didn’t want to make it a film that was necessarily against tourism, for example. That’s something Anocha feels very strongly about and I learned from her. I think my perception as an outsider going to Thailand was only critical of tourism, which is a classic left-wing, Westerner’s view. We’ve all been tourists and for Anocha, she grew up in a tourist town and those people are a part of the community, they’re not separate. The whole community is made up of locals and this body we call tourists, it’s a symbiotic relationship that is now long-running and necessary. We were careful to not be didactic about that, there are underlying questions and uneasiness about what’s taking place, but at the same time it’s not just saying tourists are dumb. You could even go as far as looking at the Neanderthals as a kind of sign of the beginning of the change since humans have developed their brains — it took a while and things have sped up — but things get lost.

I wanted to go back to your comment about the marching you can sometimes hear on the soundtrack and if you could talk some more about your approach to sound on the film?

I like to use asynchronous sound quite often to point toward other things that are happening behind or to the side of an image. We were lucky that we had two sound recordists for the shoot: a Thai sound recordist, “Bird” [Chalermrat Kaweewattana], who did the sync sound, and Ernst Karel, who is a really great sound artist and film sound person. [Ernst] came to record ambient sounds, whatever he wanted, while we were shooting. He was also going to be the sound designer, so we have this great library of stuff to build beyond the diegetic sound. The soundscape is hopefully a whole other layer to the movie that moves in and out of sync with the picture. I think that both of us think of sound as equally important as the image, so it’s always something we spend a lot of time on. I definitely start editing and doing sound design in conjunction with the picture editing, it’s not like we edit the picture and then add the sound after. They really inform one another. The sound there is intense, you are next to the jungle a lot of the time — we wanted that intensity, the birds, the insects, the frogs. It’s an ever-present barrage of noise. I’ve just been listening to that album by Rob [A.A. Lowe], YoshimO, and Susie Ibarra, Flower of Sulphur (2018), while I was bashing together a quick assembly to send to Anocha and our editor [Aacharee Ungsriwong]. I just tried out bits of the track on the film and it felt very right; it’s got space, but then it’s also got bits of drama, difficult to tell where it’s coming from. That was quite an early decision to use that music.

Did you try any other music or did you feel that you nailed it at that point?

I felt like we’d nailed it with that, but it took ages to get them to okay it, not because they didn’t want to, but Rob is moving about and doing shows so often, it’s hard. That music fit so well, I just needed to see if they were going to say yes, so I didn’t really want to start getting into other possibilities.

How has the reaction been to the film?

It’s been positive so far. I know it’s not a bombastic film, it plays on a puzzle level.

I’m wondering if the self-reflexive nature has caused anyone to reference any other films, being lost on an island…

I’m surprised no one’s brought up L’Avventura (1960) yet. I definitely thought about L’Avventura, I love that film. There’s definitely elements of other movies in there, including our own, I think.

Is there anything you can say yet about your film [Look Then Below] coming out November?

It’s the culmination of the trilogy with [writer] Mark von Schlegell [along with Slow Action (2010) and Urth (2016)]. It’s a film without people, I’m not filming anyone, it’s a cave movie that’s underground. I think the society that moved underground after centuries and centuries become a body-less being that lives in the cave walls… maybe, I’m not sure. I give Mark ingredients of what I want in there and he writes it in his language. He ended up writing a long prose poem and there’s these small triplet poems. With these triplets I’m working with a composer, Christina Vantzou. She’s composing and arranging these triplets to be sung by a small choir that we’re recording in the cave where I’ve been filming in a few weeks. It’s really exciting, the idea of hearing his words turned into this kind of weird, drone-y choir song. I’m also making a bunch of CGI images, which is something I’ve played around with a bit before, but this one will have more in it. These CGI caverns with weird lights.

How will the cave affect the voices with its reverberations?

There’s apparently a six second reverb in the cave where we’re filming, so I think it will sound pretty amazing. When we record the choir, it’s a public performance. We can only let in 70 or 80 people. It’s in Somerset, where I’m from, so the commission came from Somerset. I used to go to these caves when I was a kid, it was called Wookey Hole. So it’s kind of a going home. Earlier this year was “Now, At Last!” and “Ghost Strata”, which is kind of like a journal, I guess. Every month last year I shot a different thing I found in that month, depending on where I was. It includes bit of text of what I was reading and book-ended by me getting tarot readings. The first one is in Brazil and the last one is in Thailand while we were shooting Krabi. That was nice to make alongside this film, where there’s a crew and it’s co-directed. It’s nice to do this other, more personal, miniature thing beside it. I think that also helped me with working with a DP, the fact that I had my Bolex with me, so if I started to feel itchy fingers, I could shoot something. It’s like a drug that needs to be taken. ❏

Our interview with Ben Rivers was conducted in September of 2019 and is part of our TIFF 2019 coverage, along with interviews with Pedro Costa, Albert Serra, Thomas Heise, and Eloy Enciso.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, while also writing and cutting several numerous video essays that investigate formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.