This article appeared in the March 3, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Rock Bottom Riser (Fern Silva, 2021)

After many well-traveled 16mm shorts, Portuguese-American filmmaker Fern Silva tackles the feature-length form for the first time in Rock Bottom Riser, a slippery essay film which refuses a clear subject position. Over the course of its 70-minute runtime, Silva employs an art-as-research methodology, pairing observational scenes and interview segments with Super-16 footage of objects, maps, documents, and other related media. The film handily traverses serious topics like Polynesian navigation techniques, Indigenous theater production, Mauna Kea land defenders, the SETI institute’s search for signs of extraterrestrial life, and pop-cultural depictions of Hawai’i, as well as irreverent plays on the words “rock” and “volcano” (a scene in a smoke shop named “Volcano” is scored to heavy bass drops).

The film’s opening salvo offers the viewer some thematic orientation, as audio from an interview with an unnamed subject discussing the colonial complications of modern Indigenous self-representation overlays a shot of a Hawai’ian rainforest. In the next scene, a drone camera swoops in to capture, in terrifying proximity, streams of lava flowing from the volcano Kīlauea. While this initial footage is scored with a thrumming, earwormy composition by the experimental electronic composer Sergei Tcherepnin (whose work often transforms objects into speakers using surface transducers), later sequences featuring the lava flows make their crackle and pop audible for extended moments, in stark opposition to the conventional nature documentary, where what we see is usually described to us in a voiceover that effaces location-based audio. Silva’s attention to these sounds is a key part of the film’s dedication to place-based representation. With its expansive eye and shifting modalities of images and sound, Rock Bottom Riser arranges a constellation of related ideas without forcing them into a rigid hierarchy, instead allowing them to play off each other within a thrillingly kinetic visual and auditory assemblage.

Abby Sun is a freelance programmer and critic.