Behind its expressive title, The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is another in a long tradition of films about film. It starts high in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, behind the scenes of Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas (2016), where it documents the mundanities of filming in such a remote place. Communication is difficult; actors get tired and frustrated; trekking equipment between shooting locations is an arduous task, even with mules to carry the load.
After the cameras stop rolling on Mimosas, however, The Sky Trembles… reveals another layer. Oliver Laxe drives deep into the Moroccan desert, where he is kidnapped and mutilated by a group of bandits, before they dress him in a clanging suit of tin-can lids and force him to dance for their amusement.
This peculiar transition between documentary and fiction challenges the viewer’s perception of what is real and imaginary, not just in this film but in cinema in general. By their very nature, documentaries demand a certain degree of trust from an audience if they are to be effective. Even if the subjects they study are not made completely explicit – some of the works of Sergei Loznitsa could fall into this category – it is assumed that they tell the truth. This is a nebulous concept, though, especially if you’re of the view that there is no unifying truth, only versions of it. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, rather than telling the truth, documentaries show the real.
This is exactly why The Sky Trembles… is so disorienting. Director Ben Rivers is aware of a documentary’s obligation to reflect reality, and he uses it against us. He compromises its integrity by smudging the boundary between fictions and those that create them. We take it for granted that Oliver Laxe has not been kidnapped and humiliated by Moroccan bandits, and our assumption that this part of the film is a fiction implicitly brings into question how exactly we decide when cinema is truthful.
Such concepts are not new – André Bazin was fascinated by cinema’s inherent ‘realness’ – yet the fact that Ben Rivers manages to elicit questions like these with such a slender narrative is testament to his skill as a director and an artist.
The Moroccan plains and mountain ranges provide the perfect backdrop for such a contemplative film. The isolation of Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas shoot carries over into his kidnap, when he is led even further away from the comfort of his own reality. Like his character, however, The Sky Trembles… lapses into aimlessness at times. Between the moment of Laxe’s abduction and the end of the film, little happens to further his story. It instead proceeds around him, as if the people and places he appropriated during his shoot have reversed their position. He is owned, when previously he was the owner.
The Sky Trembles… takes its place next to films like The Act of Killing (2012) and Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011) as another compelling fiction-documentary hybrid, one which considers how artists present reality through their art. Films like Ben Rivers’ are a product of this expression, but The Sky Trembles… is unusual in that it encourages us to engage with the act of expression itself.
Country: United Kingdom Language: English, Arabic, Spanish, French Year: 2015 Director: Ben Rivers Starring: Oliver Laxe Runtime: 95 minutes
Mimosas (2016) – Oliver Laxe’s second film is a close cousin to The Sky Trembles…, and even provides its subject matter before Ben Rivers takes it on a detour through the Moroccan desert. Laxe himself is the unwitting victim of Rivers’ fictions, but in Mimosas he stays behind the camera. It tells the story of a caravan travelling through the Atlas Mountains to lay a dead Sheikh to rest, evoking the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini to deftly explore the tension between divinity and humanity.