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Ben Russell Interview (Good Luck)

Ben Russell is an experimental filmmaker whose latest film, Good Luck (2017), explores the spaces and labour of a copper mine in Bor, Serbia and a smaller gold mine in Suriname. The Super 16mm shot film had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where Christopher Heron met up again with Ben to talk about the making of the film.

Ben Russell: Good Luck was shot over two months, one month in Suriname and one month in Serbia, but then I spent like four or five months editing it full-time. You do the thing, but then the image is something you dwell in and hang out with and it contaminates you. You can’t shake it off.

The Seventh Art: Did you find a residual difficulty with the structures your subjects participate in, the mining industry.

Mining is fucked up, but we’re all implicated in it. My key, my cell phone, all of that comes from these processes, so it’s not like I can step away from it and pretend I’m not part of this thing. Just because I have the privilege of coming from a certain space, a certain nationality, I don’t have to engage in this type of work, but I guess I don’t believe that mining is fundamentally evil. It’s super toxic, it’s destructive, but it’s a thing that’s been happening… ants are miners, right? Digging shit up, moving things around, destroying things. I think there are ways to do it and ways not to do it, but the systems, these national systems that require mining is more tough. I was going to say it’s more toxic in Suriname, but it’s not. The scale of the mine in Bor is insane and the bright orange pond that’s leeching directly into the creek that’s moving into the water supply. There’s a huge mountain that’s been moved on top of another that’s become another mountain. There’s a flat lake… it’s insane. Anything that’s happening in Suriname is happening to an exponential degree in Serbia. Just because it’s happening at a state level doesn’t mean that it’s worse, so it wasn’t that, but it is a fucked up situation. The men in Serbia get early retirement because they’re going to die young, because the air is really bad. It’s kind of ventilated, but they’re spending all their time breathing in diesel fumes and dust. In Suriname, they’ll have mercury poisoning in twenty years, so that’s really hard and being in that was really tough, working through that image. I have a lot of empathy, I like these guys a lot, that’s why I wanted to make the film: to spend time with them and hang out, figure out how their communities happen out of a fact of labour. That affection for them makes it tough to keep diving back into these images and sounds. The sound is super abrasive, it’s really intense. They’re really oppressive spaces in a certain way. There’s a lot of static energy happening, but in the every day it’s really tough.

A still from the film Good Luck where a young, Black man walks away from the camera with a backpack carrying a gas canister along a road where there are fires breaking out.
Good Luck (2017)

Let’s talk about the sound. I imagine you listen to noise music and you could say at an aesthetic level they’re not dissimilar in some instances, but what makes this more abrasive? The difference in intent?

Yeah, it’s funny, I went to this Merzbow concert in Paris at this church. I’ve seen Merzbow, this was the third time, but it was super, super loud. Everybody that was in there had earplugs in and they were really passive, watching it, while being pummelled, destroyed by noise that was reverberating a lot more within the space. My partner is Palestinian, from Gaza, and there was a war happening around the time. I had the sense that noise music in a way gives us the chance to experience the terror of war without having to experience the terror of war. There’s no other situation that you put yourself into where you would be destroyed by sound waves. Go stand in the street in busy traffic and nobody’s going to hang out there with the horns honking, but within the space of culture, you gives yourself over to it. This is also how psychedelia works, when you decide to take drugs and decide to trip, your trip is a lot better than it would be if you just accidentally OD’d on anti-depressants and went into a dementia spiral and had no idea this thing was happening. You’re just freaked out because the world has changed.

I wanted to go back to your statement about the impending death of these men because of their labour. You’re aware of it, but when you talk to them about their fears, they’re not mentioning it, but they must be just as aware. Do they become numb to it in the same way as the sound doesn’t affect them in the same way it does you?

When I make films now, I try to spend a month in a place so I can be attentive to the thing that’s happening, get past the surface of beauty and see some other things. That kind of attention anywhere, in this room with the fan hum being omnipresent, but if you worked here all the time you would have to turn it out, you would have to move away from it. As a filmmaker, whatever it is I am, a gatherer, part of that is finding things that will have significance when taken out of their natural space. If you’re in the space, you don’t really have the luxury of doing that. You might geek out for a minute with this fan noise, but you’re not going to do it all the time. Going back to places like Gaza where people have experienced multiple wars and been occupied for forty years, they’re still living and cooking meals because they have to. If you exist in conditions that are perilous, you have to persist, or you kill yourself, but most people don’t kill themselves. You continue, maybe out of human nature, but if you think about death or fear, then you experience death and fear. I certainly, happily, have never had those experiences, I only know this second-hand. I’ve never had to think of the imminence of war or early retirement because I have a lung disease.

For those guys, there are so many dynamics operating within that: it’s a group of men who are not always macho, but there’s a quality of gender performance that I think is happening. On both sites, there aren’t women working there. The film, for me, was explicitly about men and male labour, trying to figure out how to make a film about male labour when most films are about male labour not unintentionally — how to be aware of a certain type of construction. These guys are spending all their time together and you’re not tough in the same way when you’re around men all the time as you are when you’re interacting occasionally. There’s a kind of openness, but they’re also co-works. If I walked into an office and said, “What are you guys afraid of?” there would be a lot of giggling and discomfort. It would take a while for them to get to the point where they would talk about these things. Maybe they feel it deep down, but maybe have also pushed away. As they say, they have worked in the mine for twenty years, twenty-six years — it’s a long time to think about fear and death. Most of those men, when they say toward the end of the Serbian conversation, “Most of us have been here twenty years.” Twenty years ago is 1997, which is towards the end of the Yugoslav war, most of these men were fighting in that war. We spent a while asking questions and trying to get at things, try to find other ways in. This part about fear, death, dreams came after weeks of trying to get answers to other things or have other kinds of more casual conversation, and none of it really worked.

They suggest that they’ve talked about it internally before when one miner says that they had agreed before to not talk about politics. The way that they, as a community, understand and react to the idea of being filmed seems different.

The fact of that space — or any space — is that you get access through power. Power determines who you can talk to and where you can go. It’s true of the spaces in Serbia and Suriname. In Serbia, we got access through the Vice-President of the company, which is a state run mine. If you’re a worker in a state run mine and a journalist asks you a question about the President, you’re not going to criticise the President. Effectively, the President of this mine is the Prime Minister of the country, [Aleksandar] Vučić, was elected shortly thereafter. He gets mentioned twice. He was on the side of [Slobodan] Milošević and so he’s not a great guy, he’s not respected. Those miners are pretty Leftist and the history of that mine is Socialist/Communist. They have a political awareness that we used to assume workers had, they still maintain it. Their [lack of] willingness to criticise or talk about the organisation that gives them a job makes sense. Whenever we went into the mine, we went with somebody who worked on the surface. There was always an engineer with us that was always above the people in the mine, so there was someone these guys were not going to talk about politics in front of. But surely they talk about politics all the time with one another. Everybody knows what it means to be filmed. I think Trinh T. Minh-ha said in an early interview, people would say to her, “The women in your films are so beautiful, they look so good.” She said, “Well, yes, they know they’re going to be filmed, so of course they’re going to put on their best dresses and do their hair.” If you have the choice to be presented as an image, you potentially think about how your image is going to be transmitted.

And that happens with the self-portraits you include, were those shot before, after or during the rest of the footage?

They were shot at the end, after spending a month in both sites. After a month in Suriname, I figured out who I was working with, who wanted to work with me, who was involved in the film and wanted to get portrait of those people. All told, I shot like thirty-five portraits or so and there are twenty-eight that were in the Documenta installation, but here I think there are only ten. In thinking about an approach to the film, I thought of an approach to a collective or body and resist this impulse to make “character-drive documentaries” or thinking of the individual as the most significant actor within a labour situation within cinema. I really wanted to make a portrait of a group and these individual portraits seemed like a way to bring this individual gaze without necessarily producing them as characters — to let them be present as single humans. Most of the guys that we see in the portraits we’ve seen at some point in the images that precede or come after. It’s a way of pulling them out, or doing the sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern move of making the minor actor into the main actor.

Does that relate to the monologue that’s delivered at the beginning of the film about one of the musicians? That whole passage seems to play with a sense of what’s choreographed and what’s not, while also introducing groups of men, the space, and how they interact. How did you approach that first scene?

I and maybe most documentary filmmakers diverge from the straighter history of documentary film, which kind of ended in the 1980s (we haven’t been with them in a while). The surprise of Joshua Oppenheimer is that he’s asking people to do things, but that’s been going on for a while. It still hasn’t really sunk in [to most people]. But construction, choreography is a big part of what I’m doing. It’s always happening, not just in those sequences, but if you’re a subject, you’re in a room with a camera operator, a sound recordist, maybe a focus puller, so there are three people with a lot of gear just looking at you. That presence is always there, it’s one of the reasons why I work in film, as well, because it’s even more present. It feels important to acknowledge that be there and not just imagine that the camera gets to be invisible and people will act as they normally do. There’s nothing natural about being filmed. There’s nothing normal about having a group of strangers follow you around and ask you questions, shining flashlights in your face.

Maybe in a certain way that shot frames this as an approach, but I was thinking about how to reveal a physical site, a history of development, and a kind of politics labour within a single shot. That open pit mine in Bor, you can see there’s a little tower in the distance, a rectangle, that’s the elevator shaft that brings us down. As the musician says, he grew up in the village that’s no longer there because the pit has expanded so much that it’s consumed the village. Of course, the village was built up to service the mine, so it’s like a factory town. It was constructed so people would work in this space, but what happens when the house you’re living in and the mine eats your house, but you still work in the mine [laughs]. It seems like a really strange set-up, so I was trying to figure out how to have that present in a shot that moves, begins in the pit and moves through a house that’s abandoned because it’s at the precipice, then comes further back and shows cars and dogs and other houses that are still occupied. Then having the band as the motivation to activate that thing. The band used to be the official marching band for the mine, they used to work for the mine, but now the mine is not doing so well, Serbia’s not doing so well, so they’re out of work. There’s a Dušan Makavejev film, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), it was also shot in Bor in that mine. There’s a great marching band sequence in there and I believe the older guy in my band was in that film. There’s a lot of connective stuff I was thinking about, but on a really basic level, when we got there I knew I wanted to do this shot and how I wanted to do it, the drummer hadn’t been there in twenty years. So the thing he says to the camera is what he said when he got there, the rest of the band was tuning and he was standing at the edge staring at the pit. It’s nuts. This thing that happens with filmmaking, if you’re open to it, is that problems manifest or things change, and the solutions are always so much better than the things you had thought of. There’s this drummer who’s not that great, who was in the rehearsal the night before, and he called in sick. So this drummer was the replacement for that guy and this drummer was the one who had this particular history. The thing that I’m excited about is that our sound recordist, Jakov Munizaba, tuned the whine of the pit — the roar of the pit — and had the musicians play a drone in that key, so they’re trying to harmonise with the drone in the pit. It seems like a nice metaphor, how do you deal with a space? You try to resist it or find its vibrations.

Good Luck (2017)

What is the connection between them and the musician who plays the Neil Young song in the pit?

He’s related, but we also knew that I wanted that song to appear somehow. When we found that cave — I think it’s 13 or 1400 feet under ground, but it’s 90 feet tall. They found a really big copper ore body that they dug out so it’s this dome, the echo is insane. You hear the sound of it in the shot before when they’re throwing stones. It seemed like a beautiful place to have that song [“Heart of Gold”] play. I was thinking about leisure and what people do when they’re not working. We spent a lot of time asking if there were any miners who played music, any kind of instrument. They all denied being able to play anything, so we were at a bar towards the end and this accordion player was there. I think he’s a step-brother of someone who works in the mine, but like most people in the town he’s never been in the mine because non-workers are not allowed to go in. He was really excited to go down and be in this thing, as much to play the song as to go into the space.

When you were talking to both groups of miners and you got the answers, such as they are, to questions of their fears and what they’re searching for, did that mean you were aware of the mirror or symmetries occurring in Suriname?

Yeah, the original proposal was to create an absolute mirror. [Laughs] The world doesn’t do that, these spaces don’t reflect. It was more a reflection than a mirror. I was trying, we shot in Serbia then brought all the material with us to Suriname. We were living in a camp on that site with electricity at night. We would watch the rushes and think about them, we were also able to show them to the guys working there so they kind of understood what we had done already and were after. It helped, I think, in elaborating on what the project was. I tried to find recurrences, things that rhymed based on what I had, what I could re-do somehow. It was intentional, but the mirror failed for a lot of reasons, which is great [laughs]. On a really basic level, Serbia was really easy to shoot steadycam because the paths are all made for these vehicles going back and forth. If they’re bumpy, there’s not a lot of divergence. Chris [Fawcett] is a phenomenal steadycam operator, so he killed it. I brought Chris in the last two weeks for both places, so I was figuring out what I wanted without him shooting, but when we brought him to Suriname, there are no vehicles that are there except for those tractors that destroy things when they go over them. The kinds of paths that were present were such that if you stepped off the path to the right in what looked almost like the path, your leg would sink up to its thigh in red mud and you would lose your boot. The steadycam weighs like sixty pounds and he has to have some kind of stability, but it wasn’t possible to find it. It was surprising. Formally it was tough to get those types of shots and organisationally it was also tough to get some of the other things to happen. There was a lot of potential activity, but it took a while to organise in Suriname. There’s also the fact that I speak Saramaccan and know those guys, have a history with them and am more comfortable with me than the Serbians — or they’re a lot more comfortable with me. I could understand, we could communicate, which produces a certain kind of warmth. It’s one way of understanding the different energies in those conversations, but I also had a good friend of mine who’s a fixer living in Serbia and I brought him to Bor, plus two guys from Bor and my sound recordist from Bor. They were all trying different ways to get access to these guys and none of them could do it. Maybe it’s just Serbians, I don’t know. Maybe it’s my ability to speak. There are all these factors that are determined. It was also not possible to shoot close in Serbia, because there wasn’t light, but also because there were all these machines involved that the engineers wouldn’t let me get close to. In Suriname, there was an excess of light and the machines usually weren’t working, when they were it wasn’t so hard to move around, which meant there was more hand-held, more “documentary-ish” stuff in Suriname because of what the conditions allowed or didn’t allow. Maybe it’s also because I felt more comfortable being close to these guys.

You’ve worked with Chris before, has there been an evolution of the steadycam process in your different projects?

Yeah, for sure. The first film I made with him was Let Each One Go Where He May (2009).

That was also shot in Suriname?

Yes, there are two shots in there from that mine and it was a third as big as it is now, which is nuts. When I made that, I didn’t have any idea what steadycam could do or what its function was, I just wanted to do what Chantal Akerman does in D’Est (1993), but in a place without roads. The way to do that was with a steadycam. I’ve learned a lot by working with [Chris] and that process, had these arbitrary time structures in place. In A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013), we brought him in again to do the black metal sequence and asked him to film it in a different way. Still thinking about the steadycam as performance or the camera as an omniscient eye that is unmoored and gets to float around in a particular way. In Serbia, it felt more like a way to track labour in real time. Time was definitely the subject of Let Each One Go Where He May and how it’s relative, expands and contracts. A journey that took those guys’ dad like three months to do would now take nine hours to do. In Suriname and Serbia in Good Luck it was about the kind of empathy I wanted the viewer to have with this space was one that would happen through time. Because being present with a body as it’s moving through space and being acted upon, allowing those actions to happen to the audience, was in a way what I wanted with those shots. Maybe the approach was a bit similar, but the attention was different. In the meantime, when I started I didn’t shoot handheld at all on Let Each One Go Where He May, I only did tripod work. With A Spell, I decided to start doing handheld work and I’ve since done a lot of it. It’s more of a syncretic approach to those two things, but I still don’t ever cut into a steadycam shot and then cut into another steadycam shot. I tend to keep them pretty whole.

The use of steadycam in these types of films does seem to suggest the presence of the author in a way it doesn’t in a fiction film, where you feel the scope of production that is juxtaposed against the setting.

Which is good. I think in fiction the steadycam asks you to not be conscious of the people moving with the subject; it’s just about the subject. Here, there’s this vacillation — especially in Serbia where we’re left in the dark and following this dot. It’s such a strange perspective to be in, where you don’t know where you are and we’re approaching a drill. It’s an insane shot, it’s so good and crazy that [Chris] did that, but you don’t stop a guy [laughs]. Even if I could… Hopefully the camera gets to be more present or proposes a kind of presence that is not Saramaccan or Serbian, but us maybe.

Good Luck (2017)

I read that you were working on — in some capacity — something with [Paul] Gauguin, could you tell me about that project?

It’s maybe why I like Sara Cwynar’s film [“Rose Gold”], because I’ve been thinking a lot about colour theory. There’s a painting of a still life in Musée d’Orsay by Gauguin of some bananas, they’re bright orange. I’ve seen a lot of bananas and there aren’t bright orange bananas, but there are bright oranges in a particular of Tahitian sun. There’s a quality to light that changes and what’s really remarkable about going into that painting, which is in a room with a bunch of other paintings of his, and that room’s cast is orange. It’s because these paintings are emanating a kind of tropical light and if you go into another space where all his paintings from Brittany are, the cast is like slate grey or blue. Colour theory or the way that objects change from space to space — and change in the sense of significance or cultural significance — it’s not super clear just yet, but the film has that as a character. It also has a lot to do with Aldous Huxley’s last text, which is called Island. It’s about a capitalist who shipwrecks himself on a utopian island to destroy it, gets converted to the utopia, then watches as it gets destroyed by someone else.

Gauguin is somehow mixed in because he’s somebody I’m forced to identify with as a white, American/European who travels to other places, ostensibly, to look for meaning within other cultures. I’m always trying to figure out how to make a film that’s not a Gauguin painting [laughs]. I wouldn’t quote myself on that, but it feels like that tradition of anthropology: Europeans going to learn about themselves through other cultures. What’s interesting about Gauguin, when he went, just like Levis Strauss and his Tristes Tropiques, both have this experience of trying to find the radically different and instead seeing an impoverished reflection of themselves. When Gauguin goes to Papeete, Tahiti for the first time, he refers to it as “filthy Europe” because everything looks like France, because it was colonised by France, of course. The things he sees are the things he knows, the things that are familiar, and he’s unable to see past his own culture — it’s over-determined. There’s pieces of that, but it’s a film that has not revealed itself entirely to me yet. Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer made a film [Why Are You Angry? (2017)] that’s maybe somehow concerned with some initial ideas I had in Tahiti. They got people to pose for them in this Gauguin pose and it was really great to see that film because you have white females that go to Tahiti to make a film about the female in a way, but the fact of the Tahitian is still there, so the film is still uncomfortable. It doesn’t solve any of the problems, difference is always present and important, I think.

Do you find that subject matter like that, also found in Henri Michaux [whose writing is an epigraph in Good Luck], is attractive to you because of your similar position? Do you seek out a lot of art that reflects this position? Does it come before or after your own impulse?

I don’t think it’s so interesting to talk about or useful to position what we call white experience as the determining frame, but the fact that I’m making work and I am who I am, where I come from, means that it’s always a presence. I’m trying to figure out what my position is/can be/should be/would be and there are lot of precedents for which people have presented themselves. I find it instructive to look at that, so it’s always happening. The Gauguin stuff, my interest was always about the colour or the frame [laughs], he forced a Christian theology, which is what he knows, onto his subject. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is similar to the paintings he was making in Brittany, they’re really influenced by a particular Christian perspective. It’s not, in all likelihood, the perspective that the subjects of the painting have. It’s a thing he knows and I find that that is really exciting, useful to think about. I don’t think that it’s a thing that’s interrogated by Western viewers so often, what the belief system that’s present within a painting or how it’s made.

Were you coming to Michaux’s text knowing is biography and any thematic parallels with your work?

With Michaux he’s popped up every once and a while. I was in a show in Paris, I had a film, TRYPPS #7 (BADLANDS) (2010), installed in a big show that was about psychedelia or optical experience or transformation. There was some Michaux drawings that were right next to where this was installed and it was the first time I had seen them in person (I had seen reproductions). They had a lot more weight as objects. That lead me to this text in Miserable Miracle. I really like that way of framing the psychedelic as a “miserable miracle”, not as this ecstatic, wondrous, transformative thing, which is how people usually talk about it. There are two camps: it’s great or it’s going to make you go crazy. I think there’s a lot of terror involved in the hallucination, that’s not usually addressed. It’s like the sublime, it’s something that walks hand in hand with the beautiful. His writings just felt really straight, because there’s not a lot of precedent of people writing about psychedelics or mescaline at that point. There’s a certain kind of wonder to that, but in reading them, he’s worn out by this thing. I arrived at that book because I had seen these paintings, I didn’t make the connection between that text and this film for a while. I had been trying to think of a third way of framing this film I had made that had two really clearly delineated parts, but I think I feared that maybe the double exposure needed to be pushed a bit. The overlay wasn’t so present without some kind of guiding thing. I also often thought of this as a sequel to Let Each One Go Where He May, which opens with a text and a steadycam shot, begins in a certain way and then moves in a certain way. There’s an intentional repetition of some of those things. The triangle that’s in A Spell is also like the circle here. I was self-consciously creating a formal lineage or quality between these things. Let Each One Go Where He May was one of the only films I had made with an epigraph. It’s not something I do often, but it made sense with this. Being an artist means you are always cannibalising your experience of the world and the experience of the world is always constant — it doesn’t start or stop — so every show that I go to, every film that I see, every book that I read, every song that I hear is potentially a thing that has influence. These things arrive at certain moments, then get buried, then later on re-appear. I’ve known about Gauguin since I took an art history class or since an Impressionist exhibit when I was eight years old, but I never imagined that I would make a work about Gauguin — never thought that he was such a compelling figure until I had this experience of light emanating from things that don’t emanate light (paintings). Later on, reading this text by Aldous Huxley. The Gauguin thing has always seemed like a bad idea and for that reason is a thing that I always come back to; I think that instinct to not do a thing because it’s a bad idea feels still like something I should interrogate, not shy away from. It means that I haven’t quite figured out what it is, because I’m fundamentally not comfortable with his practice. But it’s easy to be a hater because he also did a lot of things that were super interesting. ❏

Our interview with Ben Russell was conducted in September of 2017 and is part of our TIFF 2017 coverage, along with interviews with Amy Seimetz, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, Sean Baker, Valeska Grisebach, and Neil Beloufa.

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.