Release date (UK): November 19th, 2012
Running time: 88 minutes
Director: Ben Rivers
Starring: Jake Williams
In the old times of television, I would sometimes find my father sitting in front of the wooden box with that bulgy screen; long after the last show had ended. He would stare at the hissing noise like it was a movie he can’t quite grasp, an untold story that would unravel only in Neverland.
Years later he told me he had some of his best ideas in those moments, like the swirling black dots were brain grain where he extracted wisdom and insight from. The senseless, random pattern would induce a state of deep meditation, and Nothingness turned into its opposite. Somehow.
Two Years At Sea kind of had the same effect on me. It’s an 88-minute observation in the guise of a documentary, shot in black and white, on 16mm film blown up to 35mm, very noisy throughout — a grainy, somewhat unamenable and at times beautiful-rough piece of art cinema.
There is no story. No dialogue. No exposition. No commentary. There’s just a man with a wild white beard, middle-aged and obviously far off civilisation. He lives in a secluded house in the deep of a forest, hikes in any weather and season, lives virtually from nothing, strolls in the woods, builds a raft from canisters and air beds to float on a loch. He does other things too but they are no more glamorous or exciting. The man takes a shower, makes coffee, reads a book. And says virtually nothing.
The film doesn’t explain anything. We don’t get to know why this man lives there and like this, and how he got there. Even his name remains a mystery. We get an idea how he relates to his environment, his place and the things he’s piling up around him, old things — books, photos, farm tools, records, oil lamps… There’s so much junk around this man the film could as well be a bizarre painting you look at for almost 90 minutes.
The things that do happen in Two Years At Sea are just as strange. The man kills his time with peculiar projects, and the sense of surrealism and post-apocalyptic solitude creeps up rather soon. There’s even a special-effect scene, when the man sleeps in a caravan that levitates up a tree.
On this note, it’s a conundrum why this film would be a documentary. Certainly, it documents a hermit’s existence, how the flow of time can be something entirely different for a human living like this, and that his place and the vast nature around him are all he has, and that he can do whatever he wants as there’s no one around. But the whole thing felt weirdly staged and taken to extremes.
Yet I couldn’t help but watching. It turned out to be an emotional expedition. The question if I could live like this is actually meaningless. It’s either a choice or due to unavoidable circumstances, and in both cases everyone would cope, one way or the other.
Two Years At Sea made me wonder how much emptiness and stillness is bearable. Or if there really is emptiness and stillness. If I could live a meaningful life without external stimulants and social connections. At the point where the smallest things become huge because they become perceptible in the first place, because they don’t get drowned out by much else. Zero distraction. In the end it’s about the question whether you can be alone with yourself forever.
Or if you want to. This film can trigger a sense of dread, and maybe that’s why it stayed on my mind for quite a while. Two Years At Sea makes you look into your own mind and soul, and over the 88 minutes this journey takes you might find yourself on a quest for your imagination while only the changes in light and shade entertain.
Obviously, there are the facts that come with the film but knowing them, if it helps anything at all, might tarnish the experience. It’s maybe worth noting that the title refers to the two years the man spent working at sea to finance his solitary existence. In the end, he sits by a fire and tries to fend off sleep. In this eternal scene, the subtly nuanced expressions in his face tell the story of a decades-long life in isolation — but there is no loneliness.
One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.
His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.