Showing at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Fern Silva’s “Rock Bottom Riser” debut feature film experiments with what exactly a movie is. It blurs the line between documentary and narrative storytelling, with the bulk of the film consisting of shots of Hawaii’s natural beauty intermixed with monologues, voiceovers and lectures on the history of Polynesian exploration, astronomy and the modern-day scientific community’s role on the islands. There is no exact progression to the events of the film, with many scenes that seem completely irrelevant to each other coming one after another.
The film’s depiction of nature on the island is unlike anything else you are likely to see. It doesn’t rely on wide, sweeping views of picturesque beaches or jungles, instead preferring to give the audience tight and simple shots of slowly moving lava, trees slowly swaying in the wind and waves crashing on a beach. The imagery often lacks a sense of scale, making large objects suddenly appear incredibly small with just a slight zoom change from the camera. The hypnotic visuals of flowing lava especially contribute to a psychedelic visual experience, the film’s strongest aspect.
The film is at its weakest when it tries to go beyond its imagery and tell a compelling story. There is no real plot to the film, sometimes following real-life events and sometimes following short stories tangentially related to the aforementioned life events. This is especially disappointing since the core of the film is truly captivating, following the controversial construction of a telescope on Mount Mauna Kea. An especially moving moment is when the narrator reports that peaceful attempts by Indigenous groups to prevent the construction of the telescope were reported as “threatening violent acts.” However, this is also prefaced by a too-long scene where three guys blow vape rings over loud EDM. There might be a deeper meaning behind this scene related to the harmful effects of nicotine on native populations, but it is so obscured behind a clouded story structure that, in the moment, you feel like your time is being wasted at best and purposefully abused at worst.
Several small technical choices made in the film reveal a deficiency in any sense of precision behind the film’s creation. Some of the smallest decisions in this movie made me realize the absence of a bigger picture, such as the slight overuse of echo during some voiceovers or the lack of cohesion to the cinematography within individual scenes. This is not to critique the editing and production value of the movie; much of the work done in this film is impressive. However, some of these seemingly unimportant decisions simply contribute to the sense that this film is not built upon a solid foundation. Small details can often get lost in the process of making a feature film, but as these missteps start to accrue over time, they can only be forgiven so much.
Within “Rock Bottom Riser” there are bits and pieces of amazing filmmaking that unfortunately are lost to muddled storytelling. I would really like to see a similar attempt, but with some experimental aspects reigned in as to let the outstanding aspects stand front and center.
Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at email@example.com.