Q&A with Ben Rivers: On Friendship
Ben Rivers’ programme Friends with Benefits is both a collage film-essay on the subject of friendship, and a primer to his preoccupations as an artist. The works in Friends with Benefits share certain qualities: journey as narrative, the notational, the diaristic, and a durational engagement with the subject. Common to all, though, is that these films have been realised on a shoestring budget with the help of “long suffering” friends and family. Do these shoestring budgets encourage particular forms of filmmaking? How are the benefits of friends recuperated?
Rivers knows that filmmaking is a record of the encounter. His own work complicates the relationship between observer and observed and this programme offers insights into the various ways this type of relationship functions on film. Friends with Benefits makes another timely observation on the creative labour economy.
JONATHAN P WATTS: You’ve addressed the title of your programme, Friends with Benefits, in the Biennial Reader. It refers neither to the film Friends with Benefits, in which Justin Timberlake has casual emotionally uninvolved sex with his friend, nor friends on welfare. What do you mean by the name and is it intended as banter?
BEN RIVERS: I put together this programme because, lately, I have been thinking about how important it is, particularly in relation to artists’ films, having the help of friends. Collaboration has been on my mind because I am making a film with Ben Russell. I saw the Timberlake film Friends with Benefits on an aeroplane a few months ago. It is a pretty silly movie with a great title. Also, I had a feeling that many of the programmes in the biennial would be curated along rigorous theoretical rationale, so I wanted to be playful. A bit of irreverence is good.
JPW: In the Biennial Reader you write: “When you’re making things on the cheap, as artists often have to do, your first port of call is usually your friends (‘please will you come to the woods with eight other people and take off your clothes cover yourself in mud and paint, and wear a mask please?’)” This is a reference to a scene in your post-apocalyptic film Slow Action (2010) in what was once Somerset?
BR: Exactly, the request is to friends, one of whom put together the costumes with little bits of fur. I asked around various friends if they would come and do that; I could’t pay them, but I gave them nice food. This casual economy should be acknowledged sometimes. We make films often on tight budgets and have to exploit friends. The biennial seemed a nice opportunity to highlight this fact.
JPW: Behind Jean Luc-Godard is a changing production team that conflux around a name. Your films conflux around the name Ben Rivers the artist.
BR: Of course. There are unsung heroes. Godard movies have credits but a lot of artists’ films don’t. As time goes on, and my budgets get bigger, one thing I can do is actually pay people.
JPW: Is Friends with Benefits a pause for reflection as your production budgets increase?
BR: Yeah, like, it’s been such a hard time!
JPW: Seriously though, your recent film Two Years at Sea (2011) has had success beyond an art context. It won an award at Venice International Film Festival. Does money change that relationship?
BR: Partly. I believe in the idea of trying to make things as cheaply as possible and if that means asking friends to collaborate for nothing that is okay if they are willing. Obviously it’s nice to be able to give people money for their work. But it is not just about me; this is about a whole history of artists making experimental films outside of the commercial sector.
The Ron Rice film is the backbone to the programme. I wanted to find a place to show it for a long time. I showed it ten years ago and it’s a fantastic film. Rice is an amazing fairly unheard of filmmaker. His film was the first thing that came to mind when I began developing this programme.
JPW: Was this dispersed ‘friendly’ means of production the only criteria for selection? Do they relate to your thematic preoccupations as a filmmaker?
BR: Yeah, they relate in different ways. As I wrote down a long list of films, I could see there were different ways of looking at this idea of working with friends. I tried to mix it up. Rice films a group of friends. He gets them to dress-up and nark around in Mexico in a free, anarchic way. Robert Nelson’s film is an ode or goodbye letter to a friend who has just died. Laida Lertxundi’s is perhaps a bit more like Rice’s work: she takes a bunch of mates to the desert and makes a film. The Ute Aurand films are hard to see online – she is very strict about screening in 16mm. Aurand is godparent to two people whose names are used for the films I’m showing: Paulina and Franz. Over the following 15 years she made she made two films about them. It’s a long period of time, and the films have intimacy as a result of this privileged relationship.
JPW: An intimacy with subjects you seek in your films. Is the effect of that a totally different quality of filmmaking?
BR: I like to have a certain level of intimacy and friendship with people. I have made films with complete strangers, but I find it a less satisfying way of working. Relationships make the subject feel more like they are collaborating, so it is not simply me using somebody and then leaving.
JPW: You are characterising a journalistic relationship – one where you go and extract information, and get out.
BR: Exactly. I feel less easy with that journalistic approach. I have often talked of making films not concerned about the facts of somebody. If I was just going along in that documentarian journalistic approach without getting to know people, my films would perhaps be more accurate. Whereas when you get to know people, it is easier to play around with the question of what the truth of the situation is. You’re maybe more conscious of the construction and fiction of that space. It is allowed through getting to know someone and gaining their trust.
JPW: True friendship is absolute generosity: ultimate forgiveness – a relationship I enjoy with my best friends. Ethical questions diminish.
BR: Ethical baggage is definitely reduced. If I’m distorting a stranger’s life and they have no say in the matter it becomes more complicated if you have sat and drunk with them.
JPW: Do you curate often? How do you feel about this role?
BR: I love it. It’s a really important part of my background. I do it if someone asks me. It is part and parcel of avoiding working in a bubble: I like watching and sharing other peoples’ work I think is amazing. My practice has been deeply informed by programming films. Theses days, I have less time. I wouldn’t call myself a curator, more of a part-timer.
JPW: Several of the films in your programme derive their narrative from travel. These too have the quality of the home movie: shaky, notational.
BR: Travel informs what I do. It is almost entirely about traveling, meeting people and going to places – these are catalysts for the films. I am drawn to other people doing that: Rice, Laida, Ute, and George Kuchar as well. Many of Kuchar’s later videos are made on travels, meeting and making friends along the way.
JPW: Is it possible to separate your concerns as a filmmaker from this programme?
BR: When you put a programme together and you watch it, you still get nervous. It almost feels like, for that moment, they are your own. There is a sense of responsibility. It’s mainly about wanting to share these things but there is also a more personal understanding about how I make and understand work.
Friends with Benefits, Curated by Ben Rivers Saturday 26 May, 2.30pm, ICA Cinema 2 and Sunday 27 May, 6pm, ICA Cinema 1 (followed by a Q and A)