LOSING MY BEARINGS
Playing with location and dislocation, British artist filmmaker Ben Rivers’ feature film and installation, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015) take a large-scale film set as a backdrop, and the BBC’s former prop-making studios as a stage. Rivers uses Ouarzazate, a small town on the border between Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and the desert, as his film location, offering a multifaceted critique of the many films made there in the past, and being made there today. His ethnographically inflected practice blurs facts with fiction, often focusing on socially marginalized characters and locations. Drawing from his fascination with cinema, he weaves documentary, horror and sci-fi genres in a mesh of playful allusion and illusion. Borrowing Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ideas of intercultural cinema, this article discusses The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers’ use of bodily metaphors (eyes, voice and hands) to explore identity and displacement.
Leaving the BBC’s prop department, I wonder what I’ve just seen. A multitude of projections, jagged chipboard walls, and darkness have wrapped me in a cloak of uncertainty. Lost in Morocco, or more accurately, lost in a filmmaker’s head, I have lost my bearings as a spectator. The following month, leaving Harvard Film Archive’s screening of Rivers’ feature film version of this same project, I experience a similar feeling. As if suspended in Rivers’ telephoto lens, I make tracks but feel rooted to where I have just been. As to where that ‘where’ is, it is less Morocco or a film set as it is a place of unknowing. I have travelled to a borderland of visual knowledge, maybe—with mountains to the north and a desert to the south—but first and foremost this was a tale that refused my assumptions or full comprehension. Instead, through frustration of expectations and a multiplicity of angles, I was freed to engage self-critically with images of a culture and with images of film.
Etymologically speaking, to be represented is to be at hand. Being over or under represented, one is given the upper hand or treated in an underhand way. Cinematically speaking, Ouarzazate is both over and under represented. It has been handed over to Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, and Game of Thrones, but rarely has it been represented as itself: a small Moroccan town that acts as a large-scale film set.
Rivers’ project reveals Ouarzazate’s filmic sediment. His piece was commissioned by Artangel, a British arts organization that helps artists realize ambitious projects in unconventional sites. Lindsay Seers, Francis Alÿs and Steve McQueen have realized previous commissions. Rivers’ feature film version premiered at Locarno International Film Festival in 2015. It is shot with warm and granular 16mm colour cinemascope, and runs for 98 minutes. The installation version took place at the BBC’s disused studios in White City, West London, throughout the summer of 2015. It comprised five discrete film and video pieces with sound, and one of sound only, presented as a mixed media installation on three floors. The rushes from Rivers’ feature film were used in the installation, alongside footage taken at other directors’ shoots. Oliver Laxe and Shezad Dawood are seen shooting their own films, a Moroccan author tells stories to Rivers’ camera, and Paul Bowles’s story ‘A Distant Episode’ is dramatized by Rivers, with Laxe slipping from his real self into the role of protagonist.
Such diversity of material and references produces a sense of excess in the installation, questioning the omnipotence and adequacy of representation. Whose footage are we watching? What is the allusion or reference on each screen? How do the references relate? How long should we watch each film loop? The triggering of such questions is an ethical provocation—an ethics of confusion and excess.
One of the project’s major references is literary. The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers draws inspiration from a 1947 short story by American writer Paul Bowles, who lived in Morocco for over fifty years and based much of his wry and haunting fiction there. In Bowles’ story, a European linguist travels through Morocco studying dialects. He antagonizes the locals and finds himself attacked. His tongue is ripped out, and he is forced to dance for his captors, wearing a suit made from the jagged lids of cans. The story can be read as a parable for Western anxiety of the ‘other,’ played out by an attacker and a loss of language. Bowles was inspired to write the story on overhearing a man in a Tangiers café remark that ‘the sky trembles and the earth is afraid and the two eyes are not brothers.’ Rivers’ feature film appropriates this enigmatic phrase for its title. It concentrates on Laxe’s real-life production, and his character’s fictional attack. Several images from Bowles’ story thus enter Rivers’ plot. Rivers explains, ‘the film is a manifestation of these images, along with obsessions about cinema and how far we will go to make it.’ Rivers converts Bowles’ linguist into the character of a film director, following Laxe and his crew filming in Ouarzazate. Laxe uses the local community as actors and extras, and it is they who perform the role of Laxe’s attackers once Rivers’ film slips into fiction.
The directing of native Moroccans by European filmmakers signals the uneasy cohabitation of locality and exoticism that Rivers’ film agitates. In reality, Laxe has lived in North Africa for nearly a decade and collaborates closely with local communities. Nevertheless, he describes his artistic position in terms of otherness, explaining that ‘it’s a good position, a good distance from which to watch things. You have to be a foreigner.’ In this sense, Laxe represents the outsider film director. The Two Eyes is an extrapolation of Laxe’s exteriority, a translation (or mis-translation) pushed to nightmarish extreme for the sake of agitating any residual authority in cinematic representation. As Rivers explains, ‘as a filmmaker going to work in other countries,’ one has to ask oneself ‘why are you there? [You] have to be aware of yourself and your position.’
Uneasy cohabitations of insiders and outsiders are central to filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1994 essay ‘Other Than Myself, My Other Self’ (2011). Using literary sources concerning Morocco as her springboard, Minh-ha explores the identity produced when a traveller defines herself as non-tourist ‘other.’ She indicates mistranslation’s potential for opening new intercultural interpretations, suggesting that ‘deliberate mis-seeing is necessitated to bring about […] critical blindness and critical insight.’ (42) Accepting one’s ‘otherness’—and even welcoming the epistemological errors this exilic identity entails—is crucial in accepting intercultural diversity. Laxe’s acceptance of being foreign echoes Minh-ha’s notion of exile. So too does Rivers’ film, albeit pushing the figure of foreign director to an extreme. From a ‘deliberate mis-seeing’ of Laxe and the Moroccan community, Rivers achieves destabilisation and critical insight.
‘Othering’ is the process of perceiving another person as fundamentally different or independent from oneself. In a post-Holocaust context, the notion of Other was taken up by philosophers including Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, who suggested that the figure of the unknowable Other was vital in preserving diversity against a fascist order of sameness. Since then, Jean-Luc Nancy and others have continued the notion of protecting alterity, tracing cinema’s potential role in this mission. At the same time, acts of othering that alienate, marginalise and discriminate have been exposed by post-colonial discourse. Film theorists Laura Marks and Trinh T. Minh-ha engage with these ideas and suggest that intercultural filmmakers, when making films about supposed others, often position themselves as others. This othering of the self is a way to destabilize residual notions of directorial power.
Minh-ha’s essay anticipates philosopher Jacques Rancière’s proposal for politically engaged ways of seeing. In his book The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière addresses the problem of art and film audiences occupying overly passive roles in theatrical forms of spectatorship. He suggests a solution in ‘the emancipated spectator,’ a figure that challenges the conventional opposition between passive looking and on-stage acting. In Rancière’s model, viewers (travellers in Minh-ha’s essay) achieve emancipation by refusing radical distance, the distribution of roles, and boundaries between territories. (2009: 17) As a ‘traveller’s tale,’ Rivers’ project others itself by performing a series of mistranslations: the information we expect from a narrative film is transmitted in an erring direction.
From its title onwards, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers establishes tension between non-aligned ways of seeing. Making a film about filmmaking, Rivers sets himself in opposition with Laxe—and yet, because both are male European filmmakers, an othering of the self is implicit. The Two Eyes multiplies viewpoints to criticise conventional cinema’s scopic regimes. Rivers’ film squints, and we squint to navigate its de-centered viewpoints, realizing that looking can only ever be partial and, the more we see vision as contingent and open to revision, the better.
The first half of Rivers’ film approximates a fairly conventional ‘making-of’ documentary, following Laxe, his crew, patient local extras, and equally patient mules that carry supplies. Laxe and the locals are aware of Rivers’ camera and return it’s gaze, sometimes speaking to it. In this sense, we cannot be voyeurs because we are exposed, behind Rivers’ camera.
A crucial turning point occurs when we follow Laxe into a café (two cups are brought on his tea tray: the other one perhaps for Rivers, the ‘other’ brother) and Laxe looks out of the window. We cut to a shot of his Land Rover speeding through the desert. The cut splits Laxe in two: he watches himself outside, from inside the café. From this othering split, Laxe’s fate spirals into nightmare. Laxe and the locals become characters, and the camera shifts into an invisible apparatus of fiction in a direct citation of conventional cinema. Our gaze is no longer returned—and we would be free to become voyeuristic, were it not for the first half of the film, which demonstrated that this kind of looking is illusory and unethical. In Rancière’s terms, our safe position in the auditorium has been destabilized. Through this sequencing, from the first half’s documentary-style to the second’s fiction, we become self-conscious of our way of looking. Some critics missed this critical sequencing, alarmed by the second half’s apparent demonization of Laxe’s Moroccan attackers. Sight & Sound editor Nick James announces that ‘the narrative that follows [the first half of the film] undoes that good work, offering images of a cruel, unknowable foreign culture.’ (2015: 16) As with Bowles’ story, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is not about Moroccans so much as it is about a Western anxiety of (and attraction to) alterity, and how these emotions infuse cinematic and literary representation. This is obvious if we pay attention to Rivers’ careful sequencing.
Between the film’s first and second halves, we cut from an external shot of the Land Rover (an English vehicle in an African land), and find ourselves looking past Laxe’s shoulder at the road outside. The windscreen provides aperture framing that further separates us from the landscape. What initially seems to be added sound is actually Laxe’s car stereo. He is listening to drone metal music, which almost drowns out ambient sounds, further symbolizing detachment from locality. Here our eyes and ears are ‘not brothers,’ for what we see strains against the soundtrack.
Parking his Land Rover at dusk, Laxe is distracted by a villager. They walk down a rocky path, the camera following. Laxe is hit over the head and his tongue is ripped out. The film completely changes. Nightfall overtakes the shot and, as we peer into the darkness, a dog gobbles up the tongue from the pathway. The language of film has had its tongue ripped out too. In this way, borrowing savage details from Bowles’ story, Rivers has othered his on-screen counterpart, and proceeds to other film itself. Having lost much of his voice and all capacity for coherent speaking, Laxe is undressed and re-clothed in a jangling costume made from the jagged lids of tin cans. Now little more than a percussive instrument, he has to dance for his attacker’s friends, and is sold to a music troupe.
Relating to the idea of a loss of voice, Rancière’s essay ‘Ten Theses on Politics’ (2010) speaks well with Rivers’ film. Rancière suggests that political activism hardly has a voice today because modes of governance that implement borders, convention and law ‘police’ it, and control ‘what is visible and what not, […] what can be heard and what cannot.’ (2010: 36) Rivers pushes Rancière’s notion further. In his film, Western cultural anxiety concerning the other—an anxiety responsible for cinematic exoticism—is the ‘police.’ It is this policing that Rivers documents in the film’s first half, and imitates through the narrative in its second. Laxe represents the police, and Western anxiety as a whole. Given this, the scopic regime in which Laxe operates formed the figure of his attacker, and he was therefore silenced and obscured in an attack of his own design. To repeat Minh-ha’s terms, the self was truly othered.
Whereas Rancière sees the police’s enforcement of silence as oppressive, Rivers complicates the issue. The ripping out of Laxe’s tongue denies him language, but Laxe then finds himself dressed in a costume of recycled consumerism, becoming a percussive instrument with a new voice. In this way, although the ‘police’ attempt silence by removing Laxe’s tongue, Rivers introduces the loud costume that renders silence impossible. Politics remains, and has been re-voiced in a metallic, wordless cacophony. Oppression is recycled and re-voiced as political dissonance, and filmic language is mis-translated, destabilized, and re-voiced in a language of open questions.
Legerdemain, ‘light of hand,’ a performance of tricks with one’s hands. Film has long been associated with illusion: in its form, as a play of light and movement, and in its early exhibition, in the theatrical spaces of magic lantern shows and conjuring tricks. Rivers brings to light the illusion inherent in conventional cinema by filming extras, props, booms and microphones. In one scene he shows a stunt actor ‘fall’ from a cliff onto a mountain of padding below. In this way we are emancipated: extending Rancière’s idea of the audience storming the stage, we go backstage. Snapping clapperboards announce Laxe’s multiple takes. Extras and mules stand waiting. One extra performs his own tricks for Rivers’ camera. Laxe’s crew wears modern outdoor gear while his actors wear traditional costumes. The space of production and illusory filmic space at once interweave and bifurcate, and Rivers’ film dances between the two.
The final shot in the film shows Laxe escaping from his captors and the camera, off into the sunset. Using a telephoto lens that flattens the receding landscape, Rivers creates the illusion that Laxe is not running away at all—he seems to be running on the spot or even coming towards us. The director character is caught in the flattening filmic apparatus; Rivers is not letting Laxe, himself, or us escape.
TWO BODIES OF FILM: CINEMA AND INSTALLATION
By making feature film and installation versions of his project, Rivers encourages us to consider what feature films are capable of ‘doing’ that film installations cannot, and vice versa. But what is striking is that such different methods (the ‘bodies’ of feature film and installation) produce similar effects.
In the installation of The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, visitors explore the BBC’s cavernous spaces, only recently vacated and still filled with stage-sets and paint splatters. Rivers thus cites cinema’s illusory nature by siting the installation in a space of film production, deconstructing the notion of conventional film right where film is constructed. The total running time for all works is well in excess of an hour. The films are looped and not intended to form a complete, linear narrative. The sense of control usually afforded viewers of a feature film or finite collection of artworks is thus shattered.
Screens are enclosed in containers built with material from film sets: by salvaging such materials, Rivers translates the fakery and manipulation of film production, evident in the first half of the feature film, into the physical language of installation. The exterior walls are jagged, and seating inside is made of the same splintery chipboard. The installation at once mirrors the makeshift materiality of a production workshop, and refuses audiences the plush upholstery of conventional cinema auditoria. Viewers are thus brought closer to film not through suture, which sews us into film’s diegesis, but by inviting us inside film’s illusion-making mechanism. Laxe’s tin costume is also exhibited, joining the fake walls and paint-splatters in a confession of artifice.
Walking from one screen to another, and from one studio to the next, viewers create montage on foot, and can consider the manipulative nature of cinematic jump cuts. Moving from one room to the next can be seen as a physical translation of the language of the film cut. But Rivers mis-translates cinema: Min-ha’s critical mis-translation occurrs because viewers cannot follow a clear path at the BBC. Without time indications it is unclear when to ‘cut’ to the next room, and viewers must make their own physical edit of the space and material. Such physical and spatial translation of the feature film thus lets us glimpse what lies between the cracks of fiction.
Audiences able to visit both the installation and a cinema screening can therefore unpack—in an immersive and corporeal way—some of Rancière’s ideas about emancipated spectatorship, and Minh-Ha’s on displacement and identity. Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen are just a few examples of other artist filmmakers ‘travelling’ between feature and installation formats on similar explorations of affect and critical audience engagement. Writing about recent moving image installation work, film theorist Erika Balsom advocates the critical potential of installation by citing the etymology of the verb ‘to exhibit,’ which stems from the Latin ex- (out) and habere (to hold). Exhibition presents something for examination (2013: 13). In this sense, Rivers’ installation exhibits cinema, projecting onto walls (and suspended screens) and thereby holding it out for us to view, scrutinize, and physically negotiate with our bodies. On the other hand, Balsom sees spectacular film installations in white cube galleries (or on their facades, as with Doug Aitken at MoMA) as exemplifying late-capitalist commoditisation. In her often quite pessimistic rendering, the gallery that houses film can too easily become ‘a technologized space of spectacle.’ (31) But while the white cube is far from a neutral container, it is important to realise that absolutely no space is neutral. Moreover, Rivers is not searching for neutrality. The gallery (or Artangel’s site), as much as the cinema, is part of a scopic regime. Artangel’s commissions, known for their spectacular settings, and Rivers’ use of the BBC prop department, accept—and further extend—the provocative potential in having viewers walk through architectures of film, spectacle, manipulation, and public consumption.
BODIES OF FILM, BODIES OF VIEWERS
Experiencing an installation of excess, and a feature film of spiralling menace and intrigue, I appreciate what Minh-ha calls ‘critical blindness and critical insight.’ (2011: 42) In wondering what it is that I have just seen, and where it is that I have just been, my position as a spectator is destabilised and brought closer to the non-aligned vision of the film itself, and those we see in the film, making films.
Experiencing both formats of the project, I find myself questioning my role as a gallery- and cinemagoer. The figure of Rancière’s emancipated spectator seems to embody both roles—roles that are increasingly blurred as feature films become more open-ended and film installations borrow cinematic apparatus and history. Rivers’ project propels this welcome confusion of boundaries between territories, encouraging viewers to refuse conventional distributions of roles. Neither quite in Morocco, the BBC, or Harvard Film Archive’s auditorium, I reassess my position and—most crucially—how I place myself with regard to other films and installations too. The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers invites us to look toward our consumption of cinema and art (and by extension, the locations they depict) with questions regarding the ways in which we see, understand and relate to other cultures. In our current climate of immigration disputes, where national responses to displaced peoples have profound and often devastating effects on intercultural relations, projects like Rivers’ are vital for re-thinking place and representation.
Balsom, Erika. Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art. Amsterdam University Press, 2013.
Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion : Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso, 2007.
James, Nick. ‘Diving for Pearls,’ in: Sight & Sound, Nov 2015, Vol. 25 Issue 11, 16.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus : On Politics and Aesthetics. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.
Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. ‘Other Than Myself, My Other Self,’ in: Elsewhere, within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. London: Routledge, 2011.
 Giuliana Bruno says the idea of erring (from the Latin errare, ‘to stray’) leads us to consider error and straying from standardized positions (mapped spaces, precisely-dated events) into ‘other’ territories as an epistemological stance. (Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso, 2007.)