ROCK BOTTOM RISER – Review by Diane Carson

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Rock Bottom Riser offers an avant-garde documentary on Hawai’i.

Writer/director Fern Silva’s avant-garde documentary Rock Bottom Riser includes stunning underwater volcanic eruptions and flowing lava, Indigenous society’s protests, an actor promoting a religious breakthrough, science lectures, and more. Plans for installation of a thirty-meter telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea Mountain on the big island of Hawai’i provided the catalyst for this meandering, disjointed series of images.

Explicitly arguing for consideration of science as one of many colonizing practices, this discursive essay of sorts uses gorgeous geological footage juxtaposed with pedestrian human activity; in one instance, a prolonged (unattractive) vaping by two men. Voiceover by unseen narrators adds another layer of intermittent information, though often difficult to understand. The pressing concern over the astronomical observatory intended for Mauna Kea offers the sole link through the ethnographic, historical, cultural, and political landscapes.

While I often enjoy such experimental flights of fancy, Rock Bottom Riser works for me only as an unusual, and yet striking, cinematic experience. Though reactions of cultures impacted by colonizing foreigners along with homages to the beauty of nature often appeal, the difficulty embracing this collage comes from the sudden shifts and unexplained contexts. On another personal note, I’ve lived in Hawai’i on six occasions, went to the Manoa campus of the University of Hawai’i, and worked on Oahu. Because of that, I may be both a more receptive and a more challenging viewer.

Furthermore, I welcome comments on King Kamehameha and the close-up herein of his regal cape consisting of yellow and orange bird feathers. I’ve admired it at the Bishop Museum, but I also wonder how many viewers can provide the necessary background to appreciate or even understand the significance, especially with none provided. I must conclude that Rock Bottom Riser works best approached as an audio-visual immersion that might prompt further inquiry.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.