J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

PIFF ’16: The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers

Ben Rivers has sort of made the Day for Night of experimental filmmaking (but not nearly enough so). To make matters even more challenging, he did it in the Morocco. That sort of explains why his meta-docu-hybrid turns into an adaptation of Paul Bowles’ short story, “A Distant Episode,” but not really. Regardless, Rivers gets uncharacteristically narrativey in The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Portland International Film Festival.

It all starts out innocently observational as Rivers documents the Moroccan-based Galician-French Oliver Laxe directing the indigenous cast of his upcoming The Mimosas. It is a rough shoot, but apparently there are no occupational safety regulations to slow things down. In its way, the sight of the crews’ land rovers crawling through the desert is not unlike Truffaut’s film crew descending on their location in his ode to movie-making. Things seem to be proceeding well enough, but for some reason Laxe takes an unplanned hiatus. That will be a mistake.

While following one of the Reguibat nomads that so fascinate him, Laxe discovers he was in fact their prey. Like the linguistics scholar in the Bowles story, the director is abducted, has his tongue cleaved from his mouth, and is forced into a surreal form of slavery. Wearing a full burqa suit made of tin can lids, Laxe becomes their dancing bear, performing his weird jig to their percussive music.

On a superficial level, Sky Trembles, etc., etc. operates as an anti-colonial tale of comeuppance. The appropriator now must dance to the tune of the formerly colonized. However, the implications of the Islamic nomads’ violent brutality and their open practice of slavery are hard to skirt. The Reguibat are really just a dehumanized as their victim here. Frankly, it is probably only their reputations as cinematic provocateurs that have protected Rivers and Laxe from charges of racism and islamophobia thus far, so kids, do not try to adapt this Paul Bowles story at home.

Nevertheless, Rivers acting as his own cinematographer captures some stunning images. The desert vistas and the Atlas Mountain backdrops are suitably exotic. It also effectively teases Laxe’s film, which might well prove to be more emotionally-engaging than Rivers’ coldly detached metaness. Yet, somehow Rivers successfully channels the disoriented, kif-clouded nature character of Bowles’ work. It is not for everyone, but it gives the adventurous more hooks to grab onto than Rivers & Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. Recommended exclusively for hardcore Rivers and Bowles fans, The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Title is Not Short screens this Wednesday (2/17) and Saturday (2/20), as part of this year’s Portland International Film Festival.

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