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A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness | Review

The Brothers Ben Find Supernal Solace On The Fringe

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness Ben Russell Ben Rivers PosterThere are creative collaborations and there are perfect unions.  The newly born cinematic relationship between experimental documentarians Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May) and Ben Rivers (Two Years At Sea) seems to be the latter. Their first feature together, A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, lets the inclinations of both artists meld into one pensively celebrative journey into the outskirts that sees the human spirit glow in the shadow of societal norms. Part reflexive documentary and part narrative fabrication, the film follows the existential exploration of a nameless journeyman (played by real-life musician Robert A.A. Lowe) in three parts – from an island-bound commune in Estonia, to the solitary seclusion of the Finnish backwoods, and finally to the dark depths of a rock club in Norway where he joins fellow black metal musicians on stage in a breathtaking single take that echoes Russell’s best work.

Prior to their collaboration, both directors have explored life on the periphery at length, but rather than rehashing weathered themes in familiar territory, they make use of these unconventional situations to proclaim such proclivities as the pinnacle of human hope.  It is in the oddities of life that people often find relief from the pressures of society that seem to be walling them in.  The film’s title itself is a direct reference to this idea.  It takes a few moments to realize why Russell and Rivers begin the film with a slow rotating shot set afloat in the center of a lake just prior to the glow of dawn, but it’s soon obvious that the blackened reflection of the treeline that surrounds the lake is a symbolic depiction of this very concept.  We are endlessly surrounded by a metaphoric shadow that imposes at every moment, but we as humans always find ways to push back.

In the case of our weary traveler, the philosophic experimentation and sexual freedom of communal life, the meditative reflection of serene solitude amongst green overgrowth, and the euphoric expulsion of emotional indignation of strapping on a guitar and screaming his larynx raw all point to one common conclusion: for some people’s survival, dabbling in the darkness is of absolute necessity.  This isn’t to say the migrating protagonist is a bundle of joy, as he continually seems to sulk behind an expressionless mask, but these odd experiences keep him alive, moving and connected through outsider association.

A link falls through the trio of chapters, in which this alien community comes to gorgeous fruition.  In the first, a woman tangentially speaks of rave culture and the hypnotic effects of techno-trance music.  In the darkness of dance clubs worldwide, throngs of people move in sync to the throbbing repetition of electronic beats, connecting individuals through the elation of mass musical hypnosis.  Floating lake-top, surrounded by the over-growing greenery of Finland (strikingly similar to the way Jake Williams drifts in his homemade watercraft in Two Years At Sea), our traveler seems to be consciously rejecting any notion of such a collaborative spirit.  Yet, the film’s final chapter sees him on stage in dissonant harmony with a trio of face-painted bandmates, creating a set of songs sonically disparate, but purposefully comparable to that of electronic trance. Black metal is based around the same repetitional structure, and the filmmakers drive this point home with sublime aural trickery, pulling back the audio to fake the end of a song while the crowd continues to bang their heads in a heavy metal hypnosis.  This is superb docu-art-cinema with a keen sleight of hand.

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is brimming with the interpretive handiwork of true-blue auteurs on the fringe, every frame asking for the full attention and contemplative analysis of its viewers. The line between non-fiction and composed illusion is deliberately muddied, and yet, there is a clear ethnologic exploration within. It’s a film that demands an inquiring mind, but come with questions and Rivers and Russell deftly provide a wealth of beautifully lensed, purposefully constructed, cinematic responses in the form of a collective feedback loop of tortured souls and resuscitated spirits.

Reviewed on September 15 at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival – Wavelengths Programme. 98 Mins.


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