A memorable scene in A Spell to Ward off the Darkness occurs when a Finnish raconteur, in the film’s commune-based first third, describes being in a sauna where each person present had a finger stuck up another’s asshole. This image of “a chain of fingers and assholes” so perfectly captures what is both sweet and repellent about communal living that it raises the question of whether the film—an experimental quasi-documentary opening today (June 25) at the Cinematheque—is scripted.
In a Skype call from his East London home, codirector Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea) is happy to set the record straight.
“We’d asked the cast all to talk about communal living and utopia and stuff like that,” he explains. The raconteur in question, Tuomo Tuovinen, said he had a story that he thought would be appropriate. “He’s a pretty good storyteller, but we didn’t know what the story was going to be, nor did the guy sitting next to him. So it was a really wonderful moment, knowing that he had something up his sleeve that was going to be pretty golden.”
That approach applies elsewhere in the film but Rivers and his American collaborator, Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May), had “a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to achieve with each section. We brought together the people in the commune, we set up that space, and we instigated conversations, but we didn’t script what they were saying. In any given scene, there was always space. It’s a kind of mix of construction and improvisation.”
The character who links all three segments of the film is Robert A. A. Lowe, aka “Lichens”, an avant-garde musician whom “the other Ben”, Ben Russell, knew from the music scene in Chicago, where Russell taught. Lowe is shown, at a transitional moment, investigating a Buckminster Fuller–style dome that the commune is assembling in the forest. As much as he seems to feel wonder, he leaves the commune after this scene to be alone in the Finnish woods in the film’s most meditative and painterly section.
Does his striking-out suggest a rejection of the communal model? “It doesn’t necessarily point to the overall failure of community, but maybe that it’s not working for him,” Rivers answers. “But then in a way he does come back to it at the end, being in a band.”
Rivers is referring to the film’s final third, an extended take of Lowe performing in a black-metal band, shot in a real club in Norway, with nonactors drawn from the scene. “That was kind of the starting point of the film,” Rivers reveals. “Why does that kind of music come out of this particular landscape?”
There is even a nod to the notorious church burnings that took place in Norway in the ’90s, with Lowe looking on while a building—actually a rundown sauna—is torched.
“It belonged to this farmer,” Rivers says. “It was in the middle of his field and he was annoyed that he had to keep driving his tractor around it. So we asked if we could burn it down. It took us a week to haggle him down from 1,000 euros to 400 euros, but it was money well spent, because it was one of the most exciting things either of us has ever done. Very amazing to set fire to a building.”
Lowe’s engagement in playing with the metal band is definitely authentic, but it comes to an abrupt end, as the concert finishes and he is spat out into an alienated urban environment. The paradox—that rock’n’roll, while it is happening, seems to transport the listener into a different, healthier world, then dumps you back in the same old shit, with nothing actually changed—comes close to capturing the heart of the film. “Something that Ben and I realized more as the film was going on was that’s what the film is about: this idea of not trying to think that any of these things can be permanent. In a way, that makes it more positive. Even if it doesn’t last forever, the possibility of moving through these things and experiencing them as temporary utopias is the most realistic way to think about utopia today.”