"This is how we've heard it: During slavery, there was hardly anything to eat. They would whip you until your ass was burning, then they would give you a bit of plain rice in a bowl. And the gods said, they said that this is no way for human beings to live. The gods would help them. 'Let each one go where he may.' So they ran." —From the oral history of the Saramaccans
A young black man in a polo shirt and plaid shorts smokes a cigarette and burns brush beside an overgrown river, surrounded by the chatter of birds. Then he walks off and another man approaches, strips and bathes. The two men meet up later, traveling by foot, bus, and boat from countryside to village to town. They stop to work along the way: panning for gold at a grim open-pit mine, chain-sawing trees in a jungle.
This nearly wordless and oddly timeless odyssey culminates in a jittery tribal dance, in a remote-looking shanty village, with a half-dozen performers in granny dresses and mechanic's coveralls and grotesque rubber masks. On the ground there's a scattering of melons. Dozens of villagers have gathered around the dancers to watch. Some of the villagers play wooden drums and some drink from bottles and plastic cups. One onlooker rushes up to wave a machete at the camera, mock threatening. And then a dancer in a surgeon's mask straps on a dildo and finds another dancer to thrust against. Another onlooker snaps a picture on his cell phone.
And then the film—because this is in fact a 134-minute experimental feature called Let Each One Go Where He May—jumps back to the river, where the two young men, now shirtless, paddle in a small wooden boat.
Welcome to the dense and self-reflective conceptual world of 34-year-old multimedia artist Ben Russell, an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design at UIC who this month is enjoying locally the sort of recognition he's already enjoyed at festivals and museum shows elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. He's the featured artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art's 12x12 emerging-artist series, and for the rest of this month his latest short, "Trypps #7 (Badlands)," runs there in a site-specific installation. This Saturday at 8 PM, the museum will screen all seven parts of his "Trypps" series (65 minutes total), which Russell has described as "an ongoing study in trance, travel, and psychedelic ethnography." These range from the deconstruction of a reel from the 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert to drastically slowed footage from a Lightning Bolt concert in Providence to a single, static shot of an Arabic sign above a much larger, pulsating neon sign reading happy.
Then on Sunday at 8 PM, you can catch a special screening of Let Each One Go Where He May at Cinema Borealis and take a crack at deciphering the 13 scenes—each a single ten-minute shot—that comprise Russell's most ambitious work yet.
"What I'm trying to do with a lot of my art is let people make their own decisions about just what it is that they're experiencing," Russell says. "I'm very interested in trying to create immersive experiences, trancelike experiences, experiences that are dissonant, and visceral, and overwhelming—I used to go see a lot of noise bands—and also experiences that leave you thinking afterward about what that was, what just happened. Only instead of getting into that trancelike state with psychedelic drugs or intense music, I'm trying to do it with film."
In Let Each One Go Where He May, Russell applies this aesthetic in confronting the tendency of ethnographers working in remote locales to exploit or objectify their subjects—a topic that has some personal resonance for him.
The film looks sort of like an ethnographic documentary, but it offers almost no exposition about its two main characters, their location, or the historical context we might expect a film that looks like this film to grapple with. Russell forces the viewer to do his own grappling, using his own biases and assumptions to fill in the blanks.
Let Each One Go Where He May was filmed in the Republic of Suriname, a former Dutch colony bordered by Guyana, French Guiana, and Brazil on the northeastern coast of South America. The film's two main characters, the brothers Benjen and Monie Pansa, come from a remote village called Bendekonde populated by a tribe known as the Saramaccans, the descendents of colonial-era slaves. In the 1600s, some of these slaves, who were of West African origins, began to escape, fleeing into the jungle and along the Suriname River until they'd outrun their captors and could stop to build settlements.
Russell came to Suriname in 1998—a 22-year-old SoCal suburbanite fresh out of Brown with a degree in art and semiotics and a Peace Corps assignment in Bendekonde.
"I was hoping to find out something really deep and essential about humanity by going to some place that was so foreign to me," he says. "I don't know. Maybe all I found is that there are all kinds of people all over."
From the start, he'd imagined studying film after his stint in the jungle, and so he'd brought along a Super-8 camera. But once he'd settled in at Bendekonde, he was afraid of misrepresenting the Saramaccan experience and being seen as a voyeur. He shot just nine minutes of footage, focusing instead on teaching English and learning Saramaccan. He says the Pansa brothers, then teenagers, seemed to appreciate his sense of humor and love of wordplay, and they became friends.
After two years in the Peace Corps, Russell came to Chicago to get his MFA in film/video/new media at the School of the Art Institute. In 2000 he completed "Daumë," a seven-minute short featuring most of the meager footage he'd shot in Suriname. The film showed Benjen performing a series of ritualized tasks. When it screened at Chicago Filmmakers, Reader critic Fred Camper called it "one of the strangest films I have ever seen; its characters come and go as if they're 'primitives' posing for the camera, either obeying or fighting an ethnographer's controlling eye."
The issue of the ethnographer's controlling eye and his subjects' relationship to it would crop up in Russell's work again and again.
In 2007, after he'd started teaching at UIC, he returned to Suriname with directing partner Brigid McCaffrey to make the 47-minute Tjúba Tén/The Wet Season, featuring Benjen, by then an airport maintenance worker, and Monie, a day laborer, gold miner, and reggae singer. Afterward, Russell brought Benjen on a screening tour of the southern U.S.
In 2008 he landed a $50,000 Guggenheim fellowship to return to Suriname yet again, and set out to make the full-length feature that would become Let Each One Go Where He May.
With McCaffrey along to record sound and cameraman Chris Fawcett shooting mostly with a Steadicam, Russell followed the Pansas (whom he paid as actors) through a series of both static and dynamic scenes involving various degrees of staging, all meant to frame the brothers' work and travel against the backdrop of their ancestors' escape route from slavery. The scenes aren't exactly pure fiction—at least some of them, Russell says, including the vulgar dance scene in the village, might have gone off in much the same way even if he hadn't been there to film them. But you can't call them documentary either, and the gap between can be an uneasy place for a viewer.
Let Each One Go Where He May premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, and in January, Russell arranged for the Rotterdam Film Festival to fly the Pansa brothers to the Netherlands—the former colonial occupier of Suriname—for the film's European premiere. It was Monie's first time on a plane, his first time out of Suriname, his first time in cold or snow.
"It might have been a bit naive of me," Russell says, to expect that it would be a good experience for all involved. Instead, he ran up against some of the same troublesome cultural dynamics he evokes in his work.
"The festival put us up in a fancy hotel, and we met with journalists and did Q&As at a few sold-out screenings," says Russell. "The festival clearly had money, and at some point both of the brothers decided that I should be paying them a whole lot of money for being there. It was a complicated and ultimately really sad situation in all sorts of ways, and it didn't end very well. Suffice it to say that I don't think that I'll work with Monie again, although I'm sure that Benjen and I will make another film together."
Next summer, Russell and British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers plan to shoot a three-part feature film in Sweden called A Spell to Ward Off Darkness. "It's about a guy living alone in the wilderness, then living in a commune, then as a drummer in a black metal band," Russell says. "It's about the possibility of having a spiritual relationship with the world in secular terms."