MIFF69 – Rock Bottom Riser (2021)

Two years ago the Melbourne International Film Festival showed Viktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela (2018), a document of the power and majesty of water in its various forms, accompanied by a magnificent score from Apocalyptica‘s Eicca Toppinen. Based solely on the trailer and promotional materials, Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser (2021) looks as if it fills the same purpose for the element of fire – but while this is certainly an aspect of the film, it has a broader purpose in illuminating the culture and environment of Hawaii.

Most documentaries are constructed around a coherent narrative and/or argumentative thread with the intention of leading their audience to a particular conclusion or destination. Rock Bottom Riser takes a different approach, carefully juxtaposing seemingly unrelated materials in a way which encourages an audience to make their own connections. This can be difficult to pull off effectively – if you were to take the movie apart into its individual components it would be easy to conclude that it’s nothing more than a haphazard jumble of unrelated style and content. Silva attempts to prepare his audience for this incongruity by opening on a still forest scene accompanied by an unrelated speech including the occasional word – “branch”, for example – which takes on a different meaning in an arboreal context.

Having subliminally established his approach, Silva hits the audience with one of the film’s best sequences, disrupting the silence with a burst of electronic music as aerial photography conducts the viewer in and out, back and forth along the length of an extensive lava flow, bass tones bubbling and crackling in parallel to the molten rock, before pulling back to see the full perspective of its fiery course through a forested area and around some form of habitation. There are a few more pure audiovisual experiences to encounter along the way, most of them in a natural setting – the one exception takes place in a vaping shop named Volcano, which sees three guys putting on a virtuoso smoke ring display while dancing to bombastic hip hop (and probably doing terrible things to their lungs). One other music-related sequence stands out due to its different treatment – a giddily enthusiastic teacher talking to her mature age poetry students about Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” (1965), urging them to listen closely to the words before playing it in its entirety as the camera pans across their silent reactions.

Silva devotes a lot of time to Hawaii’s radio telescopes and observatories, including time lapse footage of the night sky and a visit to the SETI facilities. These are interspersed with references to Hawaii’s ancient navigational techniques and lost oral history, drawing parallels between sea voyages to Tahiti and interstellar exploration, traditional cartography and mapping the sky. Allowing the history of the archipelago to become thoroughly intertwined with its technological present, Silva drops a bomb roughly two thirds of the way in by introducing a contrasting perspective – the colonisation of local sacred sites by the scientific instruments of an invading culture which enlists local law enforcement to enforce the separation of the people from their land.

The dynamic tension between these perspectives is explored elsewhere through references to the movie Moana (2016). Early on, we hear an unidentified local talking about the importance of increasing awareness of their vanishing history through filmic representation – he is delighted at the prospect of it being showcased in a Hollywood film starring Dwayne Johnson and accepts that an American production will inevitably default to an American cast. Towards the end of the film, we’re shown footage of an interview with Johnson on a local TV station as he talks about meeting with local community members in an attempt to make sure their culture is properly represented. It’s a gesture towards reconciliation which suggests a way forward, while acknowledging the complexity of navigating different perspectives.

Although most of Silva’s footage is presented in a more-or-less straightforward manner, he also makes creative use of post-production techniques to create a purely visual suggestion of lost history and cultural erasure. During an early section focused on traditional textiles, a tribal leader gazing across the landscape is depicted as an empty set of clothing hanging in the air, their shape suggesting a face and body where none can be seen. In the closing minutes of the film, a series of verdant forest scenes reveal subtle areas of distortion, a chameleonic shimmer of light bending around a figure who is front and centre but would otherwise go unnoticed, recognisable as a person only by the distorting effect they have on their surroundings.

Rock Bottom Riser is Fern Silva’s first feature length documentary, but he has an extensive body of work in short film going back 14 years. Silva filmed, assembled and edited all of the material himself, but collaborated on the sound design with psychoacoustic composer Serge Tcherepnin (who also wrote much of the score) and sound artist Lea Bertucci (credited for additional sound & music), whose contributions are a vital component of making the pure audiovisual sections so successful. Extracts from SETI-X’s Scrambles of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, Remixed by Extraterrestrials (2010) are used to round out some of the astronomy sequences.

Rock Bottom Riser isn’t going to be for everybody, and it may disappoint those led by the trailer to expect something more like Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), but it’s an interesting experience – and at only 70 minutes long, it shouldn’t be too difficult for a viewer to sit through any bits they might find less interesting.

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