Two Years at Sea

· films · review ·

I’m quite fond of quiet, reflective, almost wordless films. I watch my fair share of action films too, but I can sit entranced for hours in front of Into Great Silence or Le Quattro Volte. There’s something about quietly observing someone who is apparently utterly contented with their life and at one with their environment, going about their business in tranquil surroundings. Last night we watched another such film: Two Years at Sea by Ben Rivers.

The film is fairly extraordinary to look at. Ben uses a wind-up 16mm film camera, and develops the black and white film himself. The quality of the film is therefore interestingly imperfect. The film is often grainy, and there are pulses of light, blooms of chemicals on the emulsion and a slightly jittery effect that creates a dreamy ambience. ‘Two Years at Sea’ follows a man called Jake Williams, who was also the subject of Rivers’ 2006 film, This is My Land. Jake lives alone in the middle of a coniferous forest in Aberdeenshire, and appears to be largely self-sufficient. The title derives from the fact that he funded his dream of retreat from mainstream society by working as a merchant seaman for two years. However, other than the title, there is no reference to this in the film.

I suspect that this is a divisive film that you would either love or be intensely frustrated by. There is no plot and no dialogue1. The only music is that played by Jake himself on record players and the cassette player in his car as he works (an interesting mix of folk, blues and Indian music). You never find out anything about him, other than what you intuit from the tiny clues in the film. There are glimpses of old photographs from his former life, and you see him constructing strange contraptions whose purpose is obscure.

Despite this lack of plot and backstory — or perhaps because of it — it’s a beautiful, affecting film. I don’t really want to live in such a ramshackle way, but his apparent utter contentment and absorption with the daily tasks of his life made me yearn for that kind of life and freedom. It’s an odd kind of freedom, because he is reliant upon himself entirely for everything, including entertainment, but he makes it seem so attractive.

In the film, we follow him around as he potters through his daily tasks. He whistles ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ as he makes use of his rather Heath Robinson-esque shower arrangements. He clears out an old caravan and then lies down on the bed inside it to nap, looking perfectly at peace. There’s a lovely shot where Rivers films the caravan window from the outside, so that you see the reflection of the woodland surrounding the caravan and Jake’s serene face floating in the midst of the foliage like the Green Man. And he has a lovely face — a gentle, weathered face framed by a shock of wild grey hair and a luxuriant grey beard. He looks a bit like Gandalf might if he retired from wizarding.

Jake naps quite a lot, of which I heartily approve. We see him lying fully clothed on a bed of heather on a misty moor, and he even walks some distance to a mountain lochan, lugging four large plastic drums and a wooden framework. From these he constructs a wobbly but innovative raft with a plastic container at each corner, and two inflatable lilos on top. I assumed that he was going to use it as a platform to fish, but there’s a long sequence where he laboriously constructs this raft, paddles out some way and then lies down and drifts on it. The water is black and glassy, and the silence is only broken by the sound of the wind in the distant trees and the clucking calls of grouse. It looked utterly peaceful, and made me long to be lying on that raft.

I think that his willingness to be patient and to find innovative ways to work with nature is best summed up by his explanation of his hedge laying technique, which is in the DVD extras. If you’re not in a hurry, he says, you just tie a string along the line where you want the hedge. Then you hang bird feeders from the string. As the birds feed, they leave their droppings along the line, which contain the seeds of wild trees and shrubs. Thus, in due course, you get a native hedge along the line of your string.

  1. Almost no dialogue: Jake says ‘chesty cough’ at one point when reading a label on a bottle of cough syrup. But that’s it. ↩︎