Listening to Ben Rivers' Slow Action

Still from 'Somerset', from Slow Action
By Frances Morgan

Ben Rivers’ recent installation, Slow Action, is made up of a haunting series of films purporting to document four island societies. The 16mm footage of volcanic landscapes, ruined cities, junk-filled lagoons and woodland-dwelling tribes appears both alien and familiar, historical and futuristic, as if it could have been unearthed from a long-forgotten archive or discovered in a time capsule.

Rivers’ films first caught my attention at the London Short Film Festival earlier this year, with a retrospective of his portraits of people dwelling on the fringes of society, like the reclusive Darwin-reading inventor featured in Origin Of The Species. Slow Action, which recently screened at Matt’s Gallery in London and is available to watch online at Animate Projects, takes this preoccupation with self-created worlds to a different level, explicitly engaging with ideas from science fiction and utopian philosophy, and one of the ways in which it does this is with sound.

Each film is narrated by a dispassionate voice that charts the history of the island, from its topography to the lives of its people, creating a kind of imaginary ethnographic narrative that is dreamlike, unsettling and sometimes surreally funny. The voiceover narration, written by critic and science fiction author Mark von Schlegell, calmly creates four alternate universes that the viewer feels impelled to believe in, whether or not they know where the films were ‘really’ made. Sonic reference points from other films add to the atmosphere of half-remembered histories and shifting realities.

I asked Ben Rivers about Slow Action, and about the role that voice, text and sound plays in his films.

How were the narratives for Slow Action developed and what drew you to Mark von Schlegell’s writing?

Ben Rivers: I had been developing the film with an idea of narration that I was going to write myself, or at least collage together from bits of adapted existing pieces of fiction – excerpts from stories of Victorian explorers searching for supposedly undiscovered lands and finding Utopias or strange races, as well as travel writing from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Things like Erehwon by Samuel Butler, After London by Richard Jefferies, The Green Child by Herbert Read, and The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon.

I didn't feel like I had the tools to write it satisfactorily, and was looking for a collaborator. I went to Dreaming The Mainstream at Vilma Gold, and the press release was written by Mark, [but] it wasn't a press release, it was a piece of work in itself, a very strange piece of fiction. I immediately read his book Venusia and loved it, so got in touch. We started a long email discussion about these books and he came back with things like Melville's Mardi and Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, and it was obvious we understood each other. I deliberately didn't tell him much about where I was going [to film], so that he didn't feel compelled to illustrate too closely the actual places, which then led to unexpected and serendipitous harmony between the texts and images.

Ben Rivers filming 'Somerset', from Slow Action

What drew you to the locations in the films?

I needed four islands that were distinctly different from one another, in terms of geology, climate, vegetation and inhabitants, so I began researching islands around the world, reading books with titles like Islomania, and came up with a wish-list of ten islands, from which I narrowed down to four. I wasn't thinking about the texts so much at this point, as I always wanted there to be some question as to whether the accounts you hear are actually the correct ones for the island you’re looking at, or whether there has been a mix-up somewhere over the centuries. The fourth island was originally going to be Svalbard, in the Arctic, because I wanted one island to be snowbound. Just before I was about to book the trip I had a change of mind, and decided to invent a completely fictional island and film it in Somerset, where I hail from. I thought this would be more of a challenge than doing what I had already done, which was to go somewhere remarkable and film what I found – for the last one I had to be more inventive.

In some of your other films, there’s a fascination with the grain and tone of people's natural voices – for example, S. in Origin of the Species has such a distinctive voice, both in timbre and in the way he expresses himself. In this project it's as if you've deliberately moved away from that and chosen 'impersonal' voices. Why was this, and how did you choose the narrators for the project?

I do prefer personal voices, the way they say things and the way that merges with the music or sound of their world – and for some of those films it hasn't worried me if not every word is caught; it’s the sound of their accent that is just as important. But with Slow Action the text was crucial, and had to be somewhat more impersonal, which is also mirrored in the scarcity of close-ups in the cinematography. This was intended to play with memories of ethnographic filmmaking, observing human beings for records, and turn this on its head sometimes, so that the voices do occasionally become questionable, and even at the very end, first person. I wanted to give the impression that this was part of a much larger work, or ‘Great Encyclopedia’ – that these are accounts from another fading race of humans, whose Utopia is a collection of other Utopias, and their accounts are trying to be as neutral as possible, but there are mistakes and slippages.

I had a very clear idea in my mind of how I wanted the two voices to sound, one a North American voice that could be heard on a National Geographic film from the 1950s, and an Eastern European sounding accent that sounded like Lotte Eisner narrating Fata Morgana [Werner Herzog, 1969]. After much searching I found John Wynne, an excellent sound artist, to read the male voice, and Ilona Halberstadt, a film scholar and editor of PIX, to read the female voice.

Still from 'Eleven', from Slow Action

Can you tell me about the music you used? It sounds in places like library music, but also incorporates ambient sound. Did you use sound recorded from the locations?

All the music used in Slow Action is taken from existing films, mainly sci-fi films from the 1970s. In 'Eleven' it comes mainly from Phase IV by Saul Bass, which has similar other-worldly landscapes to 'Eleven', and some bits of Penderecki used in Je T’Aime Je T’Aime by Alain Resnais. I usually record location sounds myself but this time I was very clear about only using sounds from other films: not just music but, for example, the jungle sounds in 'Somerset' come from La Vallée by Barbet Schroeder, and the radio sounds in 'Hiva' come from The Seed of Man by Marco Ferreri. In some ways this mirrors my feelings about history, how it’s often cobbled together from bits and pieces, some based on reality and others maybe taking some liberties with the truth. So in imagining this film as a document from the future, I thought that this is what they would have to do, make a collage that was close to the truth but which used fictional sources as well to inform the final account.

At what point do you start thinking about how a film will sound? 

It can vary – sometimes it’s clear from the beginning, but often it’s not until I start looking at the material and listening to the sounds I have recorded that things start to take shape. Increasingly I have allowed the films to be formed far more in the editing, so an idea is the catalyst for filming, but always with the possibility that things will change during filming, and often even more radically in the editing. Sound comes together after a process of playing with the material, often trying sounds which may be in disjunction with an image, following uncertain feelings which can be tried out quickly with Final Cut Pro, and finding ‘eureka’ moments that start to give the film shape and rhythm.

There's a bit in 'Kanzennashima' where the narrator say 'Utopia is the past', and this idea is obviously reflected in the ruined city that you see in the film – did you also try and capture this idea in sound? The antiquated, crackly sound of the recorded music seems to suggest so.

The thing is, the past in the film could also be the future for us now – I am interested in the films being very undefinable in time. I was after a feeling of ghosts: I have always been fascinated with and have made various works around the idea of ghosts, not necessarily the spiritual dead that we usually associate with the word, but more memories within the walls of buildings of past human inhabitants. The music I used in that section was taken from Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, a film I love very much and which came to my mind as soon as I watched the footage I had taken on Gunkanjima. Vampyr is a film full of apparitions.

Still from 'Kanzennashima', from Slow Action

Are there any other films that use voiceover narration that you like? What is it in this form that interests you as a filmmaker?

Actually, I have a real problem with it as a filmmaker, and struggled with the idea that Slow Action would need a lot of narration, even though it was at the core of the film. I am much more interested in films that can say things without words, but that is clearly not this film – and also some of my previous films, where a person's voice seems so much part of the world I’m attempting to make a film within. Still, I have found solace in films like Tourou et Bitti by Jean Rouch, where he explains exactly what he and his sound recordist are doing along with what we are seeing on the film; Fata Morgana and other Herzog films; some Agnes Varda films like Daguerreotypes; and perhaps mostly Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan [Land Without BreadI]  by Buñuel. The next film will be my first feature-length film and will almost certainly have no words – I'm editing now so I have to get back to it...

Still from 'Hiva', from Slow Action

Slow Action was commissioned by Animate and Picture This, in association with Matt's Gallery. Picture This support and work with artists’ film and video, as well as undertaking research and publishing print and DVD materials. You can read more about their work at and read the blog at

Find out more about Ben Rivers’ films at

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