Ghost Strata first look: Ben Rivers’ cinematic archaeology

The history of the Earth and its present peril are written on the rock in this ravishing and reflective short film that is part scrapbook, part travelogue, recording the director’s journeys in 2018.

Reviewed at FID Marseille 2019.

Giovanni Marchini Camia
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Ghost Strata (2019)

 

“All your movies are about you, but [this one] is about your relationship with time,” a cartomancer says to Ben Rivers at the start of January, the first of the 12 chapters that make up Ghost Strata. At once a diary, a travelogue and a scrapbook, the 45-minute short (expanded from an earlier 15-minute version shown in galleries) documents a year in the life of its peripatetic, infectiously inquisitive author, warmly inviting us to share in some of the reflections that accompanied him along the way.

Like in his 2009 road movie I Know Where I’m Going, Rivers meets various friends and acquaintances on his travels – this time he goes much farther, making stops not only across the UK, but also in Thailand, Brazil, Corsica and Greece – engaging them in deliberations about science, philosophy and art. Together with found and archival material, for example an audio recording of a lecture by John Cage, as well as excerpts from books Rivers was presumably reading at the time, these disparate musings both contextualise and supplement his reliably ravishing 16mm images: hundreds of birds flitting over the surface of a mist-enshrouded lake, a Mediterranean island scenery observed through the mouth of a cave, lines of strata running across a rock face and composing a record of geological transformations that stretch back a quarter of a billion years.

This last phenomenon is presented to the camera by Jan Zalasiewicz, the British geologist who was one of the first proponents of the Anthropocene and also appeared in voiceover in I Know Where I’m Going. Standing in front of a tunnel excavated into the sandstone, he describes “ghost strata”, theoretical lines of strata imagined by geologists in places where rocks would once have been but have since eroded or been destroyed by humans, because “even rocks are just passing through”. In other words, they are projections, invisible yet omnipresent, which cumulatively amount to the entirety of the Earth’s history.

These strata are comparable to, say, the latent image captured on a film’s emulsion that can only be rendered visible through photographic processing. It’s easy to see why the concept of ghost strata would appeal to Rivers, whose devotion to analogue filmmaking and habit of hand-processing his footage speak of his fascination with the passing of time and what is and isn’t left behind. In an interview, he once fantasised about humanity’s last survivors digging up his films hundreds of years from now and watching them to find out “where everything went wrong”. Or, why not, what he was up to in the year 2018.

December takes place on the Thai island of Krabi. Actors in caveman costumes and heavy make-up are on a beach where a shoot is under way. The end credits reveal that these are images from the set of a film Rivers co-directed with Anocha Suwichakornpong, likely Krabi, 2562, which was recently announced to premiere in Locarno this August. By concluding with this sequence, Rivers reinforces the impression of his filmography as an ongoing investigation and he closes this particular chapter with a second tarot reading, one comically apocalyptic in its predictions. Laughing, the woman reading his dismal cards urges him not to worry, reassuring him that, ultimately, everything is completely unpredictable.

 

Ghost Strata excerpt

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