How to be utopian in the face of all that awaits us? — Interview with Ben Russell

Ben Russell’s latest film Good Luck runs in the Locarno competition. Current Dokumenta 14 in Kassel shows Russell’s film-installation.

This interview took place in 2016 on the occasion of our joint screening in the framework of Speculative Fiction Series by D21 Artspace Leipzig in collaboration with Clemens von Wedemeyer. We start the discussion with the LET US PERSEVERE IN WHAT WE HAVE RESOLVED BEFORE WE FORGET a short that was selected for the Speculative Fiction Series.

When did Beckett come in?

My retrospective re-narrativizing of this film places Beckett and Godot in the earlier stage of research, pre-travel – I think this is the right place for it. Prior to traveling to Vanuatu, I already had the notion that the cargo cult was a successful construction, that the contemporary visitors (tourists, anthropologists, documentarians) were engaged in the same ancestral gift-return that the WWII soldiers had done 60 years prior. In a very real way, the anti-colonial cargo cult movement had worked – although of course it is now being eroded by the operations of capital – and the question of how a syncretic culture persists in the wake of a certain kind of success was present. It’s something that I’ve circled around with regard to Saramaccan culture in Suriname as well – it seems important to recognize the tenacity, vitality, and originality of culture; to resist the impulse to celebrate a „traditional“ that will be lost and instead look towards an adaptive culture that will persist.

To get back to Tanna and Beckett, though – the text certainly revealed a lot more with regard to Vanuatu once I dove into it upon my return home. I had a memory of what the text was and had seen some commonality between the anticipation of John Frumm and all of that Waiting for Godot – though the lines about magicians and happiness had much more weight than I would have imagined. The imposition of Beckett’s text onto the words of John Frumm (via Chief Isaac) and later Isaac himself felt like a reasonable deployment of Herzog’s ideas around „meta-truth“. I.E. This is what they were saying, in parallel.

Who (or what) is speaking through the screen to us?

I try to stay aligned with Trinh Minh-Ha’s notions of parallel speech – „not for but around“. I try to resist claims of authority of subjects, defer to visceral understanding in lieu of knowledge. This is a strategy on my part – one that arises out of an earlier education heavy on post-colonial theory and a sense that the necessarily exploitative power positions that allow for cinema to exist have to be acknowledged in order to be reframed, to be pulled apart.

I always imagine that my presence is felt, that my hand is evident – that I maintain some degree of visibility in my work. I see this declaration of authorship as a means of dismantling the authority that is otherwise a given within a non-fiction framework – though it’s clear that an audience’s perception of this move is quite variable, just as my mode of address varies from one work to the next.


Your films give me a strong feeling of detachment or defamiliarization (a Russian term „ostranenie“ coined by Shklovsky). It comes probably from the viewer’s subconscious inquiry: Who is filming this? – an inquiry which hits an invisible obstacle.
In your film PONCE DE LEÓN the camera rotation actively denies any human observer behind the camera. As if a story is being shot by a ghost or an automaton.

Right – with PONCE DE LEÓN, Jim and I adopted the vantage point of the Earth or maybe even of Time Itself, assumed a perspective that arose from some sort of inexorable movement: each 360-degree rotation is cleaved on two axis, taking exactly one minute to complete. We see the body-in-time-and-space, an object subjected to the physicality of being.

Or that close up framing, fragmented views of bodies and objects, which you use extensively throughout your films. (I mean it is not quite normal human mode of viewing, we always need a context or background to relate the object upon and to grasp it as a whole.)

I never imagine that the camera-eye is a twin of vision – it seems to be something else altogether – and this allows for a lot of choice in how I go about depicting the world. I suppose that, ideologically, the fractured view offers some kind of resistance to a totalizing view of subject.

…or your camera follows the subject persistently (e.g. Let Each One Go Where He May) but it appears that neither protagonists nor the world are aware of it, and they indifferently turn their backs to the audience.

This film signaled my first usage of the steadicam – I saw it then as some kind of god-vision or ghost-vision, a disembodied spirit that we get to hover with, that allows us to walk with / behind but rarely in front of. We follow, giving ourselves over to another’s trajectory.

Let Each One Go Where He May

This alienation of the observer gives me almost cold shivers, breath of loneliness.

I wonder about this – whether what you feel as alienation is in fact a result of being present, of becoming aware of yourself as a third subject produced through the screen. To be alone in a crowd – I suppose this is another condition of cinema, at least when it is pointed to.


Returning to Becket: I suppose the real drama of an absurdist artwork lies not in the plot itself but beyond, in a dangerous relation of the writer to his book. A sudden revelation that the author has conjured some immeasurable irrational truth about the world and human condition, which is beyond his own control or judgement. Becket is not ever able to redeem his characters from that Schlecht-Unendliche – bad eternity. One of the most pessimistic stories ever written.
In this perspective
LET US PERSEVERE…  documents the fall of mankind, the man lies prostrate on the ground. The Language (in the sense of Logos) fails. Our humble aspirations are this cargo-cult banner that we raise daily, an imaginary savior which won’t arrive.

I like this reading a lot – feel like it connects directly to a line from a black metal theorist named Paul Enn wrote about the „holocaust of consciousness“ that all humanity suffers from as a result of its own humanity. Having said as much, what you read as the fall I’ve understood more as an extension of boredom – that to be fulfilled is to willfully embrace a kind of emptiness.

Of course, the danger in offering the first reading in relation to the onscreen subjects is that it removes their power, their agency. I hope I’m not guilty of this, although it surely is one of the perils of making intentionally open (and perhaps opaque) work in distant locales…

Is that a lesson you learned from your trips to Melanesia, Suriname?

I went to Suriname when I was 22, hoping to be exposed to some wholly other way of being. I suppose I found this via my deep exposure to Saramaccan culture, but the most significant and disappointing discovery I made was that humans are the same everywhere.  Any magical notion of the exotic, the foreign, the Other was pretty quickly dismantled – I came to understand that the Other was simply not-me, that animists and Christians suffer alike in the heat.

…something which becomes apparent in the heat and disorder of selva? The fraud of Language which disguises the absurd of existence?

Or the impossibility of knowledge to provide understanding, empathy. Language is a fractal microscope – it appears to draw us closer and closer to a center that is always moving away.


I believe the brothers in Let Each One Go Where He May will prevail strong and vital so long they refuse to utter a word. The atlantes (in ATLANTIS) are doomed from utopia, since then their story had been written down in a book.

Cinema affords the creation of subjects as mythologies – it lets the brother be Figures and not just subjects, places them on a search that will likely never end. In the same vein, those Sunday afternoon Maltese men become sad Atlanteans, condemned to their own relative success.

I suppose that here we get closer to our screening subject, namely the fortunes of utopias.

Totally – this was a frame that Ben Rivers and I found to be totally useful in organizing our conversations around A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS, a film that was midway in production when I made LET US PERSEVERE and preceded ATLANTIS and GREETINGS TO THE ANCESTORS…


On one hand it is a failed utopia, and a general commentary on sad human(ity) condition as opposed to Nature or irrational nature of world itself. On the other hand there is a lesson of certain consolation in the chief’s call to happiness. Was it Camus who meant, that it is the man’s utmost courage to act whilst facing the gaping chasm of Absurd?

I’d hate to condemn the utopian pursuit to failure, would rather believe that our collective history is one in which every new structure is built on the ruins of what came before it. The question is how to move forward, how to progress, how to be utopian in the face of all that awaits us. Assuming that other cultures have power, have answers, is one way to do this – I guess this is how I understand Isaac’s final statement.

Have you ever given the camera to your protagonists?

There was a moment in the course of making LET EACH ONE GO WHERE HE MAY that I realized (quite happily) that I’d rather make the films I want, to construct the worlds that I desire. This came after a comment from my steadicam operator – but it applied directly to the Pansa brothers and my Saramaccan collaborators, folks who I imagine to be actively participating in cinema-construction with but don’t ever think of as proper collaborators.

It seemed like a good idea a decade ago – even a thing to pursue, but I’m pretty clear on the fact that my own pleasure in filmmaking comes from the act of making. The joys of collaboration likewise come from being exposed to another’s complicated vision – I certainly don’t think this is beyond Benjen or Isaac, but my own tastes are esoteric enough that it’s tough to imagine that they’d be interested in what I’m after – and vice versa. This seems fair to me.

I mean this rather figuratively. Could you pretend, you had acquired or shared their vision? I believe you really do have shared their sense of time. But have you learned from them to look at things, to tell stories? How would they frame a shot? Plot a mise-en-scène?

Those things I’ve mentioned previously – actively trying not to speak for-or-as – has kept me from trying to adopting a vision that isn’t mine. Of course, it hasn’t kept me from trying to adapt that vision – spending time in a place, with a subject/object, is the only way I know of to be able to see it, to slip past the immediate surface of things and find depth in flatness. As you say, I’ve certainly found myself to be deeply affected by the time of a place – this is one of the main subjects of LET EACH ONE GO – and the kind of attention that results from spending / losing time tends to point in a wholly other direction.

I borrowed a lot from Saramaccan oral storytelling strategies in my earlier (more narrative) work – and I’ve surely learned to see causality in a much less linear way. This affects framing, sound-image relations, off-screen space in ways that are a bit more difficult for me to pin down.  I do think a lot about what a place looks like, what it sounds like, what kinds of cinema time and space it wants to occupy.

Let Each One Go Where He May

Some sequences remind me the syntax of primeval myths. I may only speculate what kind of perception of space and time is inherent to those people, and is it possible at all for a „westerner“ to learn it. Have you imagined what kind of movie would the Vanuatu chief or Pansa brothers have done, when they could?

 While I’ve asked Benjen Pansa a number of times how / if he would make a film, there’s never been a clear outcome and I’ve never really thought in depth about what his films would look like – mostly because they fall into the conventions of media that he’s been exposed to: Kung-fu films, action movies, etc.

A better answer might be this: I’m pretty certain that most people everywhere have seen enough moving images by now that the dominant themes of narrative cinema have been absorbed. The kind of non-western time/space conceptions that exist now are as likely to be determined by things like screen size and mistranslations and electricity generators that shut off mid- projection as any sort of „native“ or „traditional“ storytelling structure. The language of cinema has been universally internalized, at least in its vaguest form. While there is a great deal to be done with and too cinema, especially by folks who have grown up with another sense of time / space / narrative, I’m guessing that the odds of finding a visionary are as good (or bad) as they are anywhere else. Chief Isaac Wan might be that person, though his disavowal of Western commodity capitalism would make filmmaking pretty tough…

What would be the mask of your choice?

A Yup’ik shaman’s transformation mask, obviously!


Interview by Nick Teplov

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