The most surprising thing about Ben Rivers‘s Two Years at Sea is that it got widespread distribution. Well, relatively widespread, far more than one would expect for a black and white documentary composed mainly of long-shots with no narration and dialogue amounting to the two words “chesty cough.” It does have one thing in its favour that other recent films of its ilk do not, however, and that is that it sounds conceptually exciting.
The blurb of Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously – a recent, similarly slow (and magnificent) documentary about the quotidian life of a Welsh farming community – probably wouldn’t convince many viewers to go and see it; a film about a hermit in Aberdeenshire who lives in a house full of bric-a-brac has more potential for drawing a wider audience. And Two Years at Sea may indeed get people in the cinema, but there’s every chance that those who aren’t versed in the film’s art-house snail-pace lineage of Tarkovsky, Denis, Tarr (an obvious touchstone who has rightly been namechecked in many of the film’s reviews), Weerasethakul et al might not stay til the end. There were no walk-outs in the screening I attended, but that was in the ICA, and I’m not sure if a regular arts centre cinema crowd would be so open to shots lasting upwards of five minute of Jake Williams – the film’s aforementioned hermit protagonist – doing various tasks such as showering, reading, listening to music, floating on an impromptu raft in a river, falling asleep in a caravan and waking up to find said caravan has floated up into a tree. Which brings me to another important point: much of Two Years at Sea is fabricated especially for the camera. Not just such physically impossible feats as levitating caravans, but the everyday stuff as well. According to this piece in the Guardian, Williams is actually quite a gregarious individual with “friends, a daughter, a telephone, a computer”, “has played mandolin on stage with Mike Scott of The Waterboys” and pithily brushes off his junk hoarding as “a bit of a wartime mentality. Save jam jars because one day you might decide to make jam.”
The impression one recieves from the film, however, is of a solipsistic individual who has subtracted himself entirely from the outside world. The family photos which are the only hints towards Williams’s past life provided by the film do not imply that Williams is still in touch with his kin: one imagines that some tragic incident or grave transgression has left Williams alone in the world. As I argue in this article, the fact that a film’s scenes are constructed doesn’t necessarily render its documentary status anulled, because plenty of films which are unquestionably documentaries wilfully invent scenarios for their subjects, yet that begs the question of whether Two Years at Sea is unquestionably a documentary. Here, the similarity with Bela Tarr is most pertinent, because tonally and stylistically Two Years at Sea is identical to much of the Hungarian auteur’s work, and the only thing that sets it apart is the fact that the roles of the similarly craggily faced and hirstite stars of Tarr’s films generally do not vaguely approximate their day-to-day lives. Yet I do not know if this necessarily makes it a documentary.
Two Years at Sea is indeed a wonderful film, but the sense of a completely hermetically-sealed world which it constructs; the manner in which Williams’s persona is allegedly a complete fiction (from reading around the film, one can guess that, once Rivers stopped shooting a pensively solitary Williams staring into the flames of a bonfire, for instance, Williams looked up at him with a big convivial grin); the fact that its fourth wall is (virtually) never broken, all seem to identify the work quite firmly as a fiction film. But, on the other hand, I doubt that Two Years at Sea would have enjoyed such widespread distribution if it hadn’t identified itself as a documentary.