Your patience will be tested with A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

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A documentary by Ben Russell and Ben Rivers. Rating unavailable.

“Stories should take time,” someone says in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a rough fusion of ideas from two experimental filmmakers, American Ben Russell and the U.K.’s Ben Rivers. “That’s the point of stories,” the man further asserts. But is storytelling essentially a way to mark temporal movement? Or is its point to make time stand still long enough to yield hidden meaning? These are some of the questions raised in a documentary setting that forgoes the usual narrative mediation to follow wisps of thought that remain just out of reach.

In fact, the spells cast here seem to invite darkness as a mostly silent man wanders the frigid recesses of Scandinavia, in search of—something! Fortunately, this Gulliver in a land of fiords, mushrooms, communal sauna parties, and black-metal bands is a compelling figure. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe is a U.S.–based performance artist who looks like a bushier version of jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, and the man’s eclectic interests justify the comparison.

That won’t necessarily help viewers grasp why they’re seeing him with a scraggly group of displaced foreigners back-to-the-landing it (and making banal, if occasionally nude, observations) in rural Estonia; travelling alone through Finland, where Lowe, who also goes by the name Lichens (and not Rob), studies the local flora; and playing guitar and singing, in theatrical whiteface, with Norwegian metalheads.

There are some Koyaanisqatsi-like moves, suggesting the conflict between man’s industrial and social inclinations versus the supremacy of nature. But why is that cabin burning in the woods? And why does that incredibly loud band get to play for 25 uninterrupted minutes (out of about 90)? And are all those underexposed, shaky-cam shots of people’s backs as they walk through the woods the best way to get inside someone else’s experience? Your patience for these provocations will determine how you like this Spell. Maybe not knowing whether it’s even a story is actually the point.

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