‘Rock Bottom Riser’ offers an avant-garde documentary on Hawai’i
By Chuck Lavazzi
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. “Rock Bottom Riser” screens on 35 mm film at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 each of those evenings. For more information, you may visit the film series website.