Rock Bottom Riser Review: Fern Silva’s Psychedelic Ode to the Hawaiian Islands

Fern Silva approaches an idyllic yet troubled archipelago with a cosmically open-minded humanism.

Rock Bottom Riser
Photo: Cinema Guild

Fern Silva’s Rock Bottom Riser opens with a meditative static shot of a sun-dappled grove as a self-regarding voice lectures on the colonialist implications of a painting (or possibly photograph) we never see. This dryly academic opening turns out to be a kind of parodically pretentious foreword to a flurry of invigorating, if often perplexing, images. No sooner have we gotten our bearings than the scene switches to outer space, where the stars dance in circles, enigmatic vector patterns appear and disappear, and a talking beam of light breaks through the heavens to tell us, “I am the spaceship of the ancestors.”

From there, Silva catapults us through a fiery wormhole, runs us through a forest glimpsed in infrared (shades of Predator), and allows us to glide above the Earth as fiery magma belches out of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and flows around a small village like a river of fire, as a burbling Carpenteresque synth score fills the soundtrack. And that’s just the first five minutes of this at once playful and serious avant-garde documentary, which offers a consistently unpredictable survey of Hawaiian history, culture, and political issues.

The film puts particular emphasis on the tense interplay between Western notions of scientific inquiry and indigenous rights, with the battle over the proposed construction of an astronomical observatory on top of Mauna Kea—the most sacred site in native Hawaiian culture—serving as a focal point. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), as the project is known, is positioned as both a colonialist substitution of indigenous modes of inquiry and a Trojan horse for the further displacement and carceralization of native Hawaiians.

Silva is less interested in building the case against the TMT—though the comments of one off-screen activist do so effectively—than in using the project as a lens through which to explore native Hawaiians’ relationship to their homeland and to the celestial sphere. Silva, a Portuguese-American filmmaker making his feature-length directorial debut with Rock Bottom Riser after several shorts, is aware of his status as an outsider to Hawaii, and he approaches the islands and native Hawaiian culture with an awe and respect that resists the touristic gaze. If the film cannot be read as Orientalist ethnography, that’s because it’s dominated by the voices of native Hawaiians, who offer mini-lectures on subjects like native Hawaiian cosmology, indigenous navigation techniques, and the acceptability of casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as King Kamehameha I in an upcoming Hollywood film.

Rock Bottom Riser’s episodic structure allows Silva to explore a variety of audio-visual strategies, ranging from the relatively straightforward to the downright trippy; one eerie sequence is stitched together from images of massive telescopes appearing to shoot lasers into the sky, and interspersed with low-lit shots of a dangerous-looking forest. The colorful tropical scenery of Hawaii is captured using grainy film stock, rendering oft-photographed occurrences—from lava-spouting volcanoes to surfers catching big waves—dreamy and mystic, almost otherworldly. Jumping between sober disquisitions on matters of socio-political import, hypnotically beautiful nature photography, odd scenes of a one-man play performed in a variety of public spaces, and disorienting audio-visual larks, Silva’s film is hard to pin down.

Surveying Hawaii from multifarious viewpoints, Rock Bottom Riser recalls Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables, another experimental documentary that paid special attention to native peoples’ deep roots in an American territory. Like Stratman, Silva draws out the materialist underpinnings of indigenous practices and beliefs without reducing his subjects to generalities. The filmmaker presents indigenous folklore and navigation as practical means for understanding the complexities of astronomical phenomena. The film evokes the colonization of the Hawaiian islands without centering the experience of European settlers, presenting them instead as clueless interlopers, as in a hilariously out-of-joint sequence in which a classroom of white adults divine the poetics of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock.” Silva approaches an idyllic yet troubled archipelago with a cosmically open-minded humanism that remains rooted in the struggles of native Hawaiians, ultimately suggesting that though the heavens belong to all of us, Hawaii belongs to its original inhabitants.

 Director: Fern Silva  Screenwriter: Fern Silva  Distributor: Cinema Guild  Running Time: 70 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2021

Keith Watson

Keith Watson is the proprietor of the Arkadin Cinema and Bar in St. Louis, Missouri.

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