// Presented as part of June's Best Undistributed Series //
Ben Rivers / 2016, Locarno, Ibn Arabi, London, New York, Rotterdam, Toronto / 95'
Filmmaker Oliver Laxe is directing his latest film on a remote set in the Moroccan Sahara. A caravan of travelers wind through the vast, beautiful landscape, proclaiming "The sheikh is dead"— until someone calls cut. Meanwhile the desert is littered with the remnants of abandoned sets, recalling films from decades past. Suddenly, the filmmaker jumps into his 4x4 and takes off into a landscape of wild nothingness, becoming a character in another story of subjugation that can end only in violence and madness.
A singular exploration of authorship and anthropological exploitation within Morocco's wild Atlas Mountains and much-filmed desert, Ben Rivers' feature film debut collapses fiction and documentary, dream and reality into a stunning meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself. The Sky Trembles and The Earth is Afraid and The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers premiered at Locarno, Toronto, Rotterdam and New York, and was nominated for Indiewire Critics' Poll for Best Undistributed Film, for which it won 5th place.
"Here is a challenging, cerebral slow-burner from the artist and film-maker Ben Rivers. It unfolds calmly, blankly, then contorts into violence: part drama, part opaque essay film on the nature of orientalism. This is a free adaptation of Paul Bowles's 1945 short story A Distant Episode; there are also echoes of Lawrence and Kipling"
- Peter Bradshaw, Film Review, The Guardian
"Eventually more narrative in nature than most of Rivers' previous films— though the line between fact and fancy has always been a hazy one in his work— this Morocco-set fever dream traces the punishing descent into subjugation and madness that befalls a real-life European auteur when he abandons the remote Saharan set of his latest film. The minimalist surface of this avant-garde fable masks jangling crosscurrents of subtext on post-colonial retribution and the nature of authorship... Initially taking place on the actual set of Laxe's upcoming docu-fiction hybrid Mimosas, The Sky Trembles introduces itself as a particularly deconstructed making-of doc, passively exposing heart-of-darkness disorder in Laxe's own attempts to follow a wandering caravan through the Atlas Mountains. To what degree the onscreen auteur's struggle is being represented or fabricated is anyone's guess: Could Laxe, repurposed as another director's leading man while helming his own project, be reflecting Rivers' own authorial presence back at the man behind the camera? Are they conspiring to project their shared neuroses as simultaneous conveyors and creators of story worlds? The hall-of-mirrors possibilities are endless"
- Guy Lodge, Locarno Review, Variety
"The environment's inherent violence, the gritty air and feverish heat of the desert seemed to ooze out of the screen, which, combined with the beauty of the images, made for a singularly breathtaking experience"
- Giovanni Marchini Camia, Locarno Review, Filmmaker Magazine
"Rivers' latest work is a sprawling set of projects whose variety, size, and complexity matches the verbosity of its title: The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers. A diverse set of excursions into Morocco's Sahara and Atlas Mountains, The Sky Trembles comprises a book, an installation, a feature film projected in 35mm, and a short, each overlapping and intersecting one with the other, and with myriad other films and stories... In Rivers' version of Bowles' story, the protagonist is not a professor of linguistics, but a filmmaker: the Galician director Oliver Laxe, playing himself. This, of course, transposes Bowles' sometimes paradoxical concerns about the West, its hubris, and its horror and fascination with the Orient into the medium of cinema— and, indeed, into a reflexive mode of films about films, films within films, and films imagining other possible films... If we take Rivers' film as a fable for the cinema, even a utopian one, it's nonetheless one that opts for the cinema of encounter over the cinema of control, one that fully rejects the notion of the pre-eminence of artistic vision over reality. If auteurism exalts the filmmaker's ability to bend the wayward elements of reality to his singular, personal vision, Rivers' film suggests precisely the opposite: that cinema is a space for collaboration and collusion, however messy they may be. It exists precisely at the moment in which personal vision, confronted with the real, dissolves into a wider and wider network of contingencies and affiliations. And if this makes the remains inescapably complicated, perhaps this ambivalence, this dance between exploitation and submission, is itself something to be embraced"
- Leo Goldsmith, Toronto Review, Cinema Scope
"A film that recalls such meta-cinematic forebears as Werner Herzog, Dennis Hopper, and Antonioni, The Sky Trembles lands up not so subtly in Tod Browning territory, and it's hard not to wonder if Laxe and Rivers are pouring one out in memory of Saartjie Baartman"
- Michael Sicinski, Toronto Review, Mubi Notebook