The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers: A Politics Of Representation

Becca Voelcker
May 19, 2016
© The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, 2015


Playing with location and dislocation, British artist filmmaker Ben Rivers’ feature film and installation, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers  (2015) take a large-scale film set as a backdrop, and the BBC’s former  prop-making studios as a stage. Rivers uses Ouarzazate, a small town on  the border between Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and the desert, as his film  location, offering a multifaceted critique of the many films made there  in the past, and being made there today. His ethnographically inflected  practice blurs facts with fiction, often focusing on socially  marginalized characters and locations. Drawing from his fascination with  cinema, he weaves documentary, horror and sci-fi genres in a mesh of  playful allusion and illusion. Borrowing Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ideas of  intercultural cinema, this article discusses The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers’ use of bodily metaphors (eyes, voice and hands) to explore identity and displacement.

Leaving the BBC’s prop department, I wonder what I’ve just seen. A  multitude of projections, jagged chipboard walls, and darkness have  wrapped me in a cloak of uncertainty. Lost in Morocco, or more  accurately, lost in a filmmaker’s head, I have lost my bearings as a  spectator. The following month, leaving Harvard Film Archive’s screening  of Rivers’ feature film version of this same project, I experience a  similar feeling. As if suspended in Rivers’ telephoto lens, I make  tracks but feel rooted to where I have just been. As to where that  ‘where’ is, it is less Morocco or a film set as it is a place of  unknowing. I have travelled to a borderland of visual knowledge,  maybe—with mountains to the north and a desert to the south—but first  and foremost this was a tale that refused my assumptions or full  comprehension. Instead, through frustration of expectations and a  multiplicity of angles, I was freed to engage self-critically with  images of a culture and with images of film.


Etymologically speaking, to be represented is to be at hand.[1]   Being over or under represented, one is given the upper hand or treated  in an underhand way. Cinematically speaking, Ouarzazate is both over  and under represented. It has been handed over to Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, and Game of Thrones, but rarely has it been represented as itself: a small Moroccan town that acts as a large-scale film set.

Rivers’ project reveals Ouarzazate’s filmic sediment. His piece was commissioned by Artangel,  a British arts organization that helps artists realize ambitious  projects in unconventional sites. Lindsay Seers, Francis Alÿs and Steve  McQueen have realized previous commissions. Rivers’ feature film version  premiered at Locarno International Film Festival in 2015. It is shot  with warm and granular 16mm colour cinemascope, and runs for 98 minutes.  The installation version took place at the BBC’s disused studios in  White City, West London, throughout the summer of 2015. It comprised  five discrete film and video pieces with sound, and one of sound only,  presented as a mixed media installation on three floors. The rushes from  Rivers’ feature film were used in the installation, alongside footage  taken at other directors’ shoots. Oliver Laxe and Shezad Dawood  are seen shooting their own films, a Moroccan author tells stories to  Rivers’ camera, and Paul Bowles’s story ‘A Distant Episode’ is  dramatized by Rivers, with Laxe slipping from his real self into the  role of protagonist.

Such diversity of material and references produces a sense of excess  in the installation, questioning the omnipotence and adequacy of  representation. Whose footage are we watching? What is the allusion or  reference on each screen? How do the references relate? How long should  we watch each film loop? The triggering of such questions is an ethical  provocation—an ethics of confusion and excess.

© The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, 2015

One of the project’s major references is literary. The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers draws  inspiration from a 1947 short story by American writer Paul Bowles, who  lived in Morocco for over fifty years and based much of his wry and  haunting fiction there. In Bowles’ story, a European linguist travels  through Morocco studying dialects. He antagonizes the locals and finds  himself attacked. His tongue is ripped out, and he is forced to dance  for his captors, wearing a suit made from the jagged lids of cans. The  story can be read as a parable for Western anxiety of the ‘other,’  played out by an attacker and a loss of language. Bowles was inspired to  write the story on overhearing a man in a Tangiers café remark that ‘the sky trembles and the earth is afraid and the two eyes are not brothers.’  Rivers’ feature film appropriates this enigmatic phrase for its title.  It concentrates on Laxe’s real-life production, and his character’s  fictional attack. Several images from Bowles’ story thus enter Rivers’  plot. Rivers explains, ‘the  film is a manifestation of these images, along with obsessions about  cinema and how far we will go to make it.’ Rivers converts Bowles’  linguist into the character of a film director, following Laxe and his  crew filming in Ouarzazate. Laxe uses the local community as actors and  extras, and it is they who perform the role of Laxe’s attackers once  Rivers’ film slips into fiction.

The directing of native Moroccans by European filmmakers signals the  uneasy cohabitation of locality and exoticism that Rivers’ film  agitates. In reality, Laxe has lived in North Africa for nearly a decade  and collaborates closely with local communities. Nevertheless, he describes  his artistic position in terms of otherness, explaining that ‘it’s a  good position, a good distance from which to watch things. You have to  be a foreigner.’ In this sense, Laxe represents the outsider film  director. The Two Eyes is an extrapolation of Laxe’s exteriority,  a translation (or mis-translation) pushed to nightmarish extreme for  the sake of agitating any residual authority in cinematic  representation. As Rivers explains,  ‘as a filmmaker going to work in other countries,’ one has to ask  oneself ‘why are you there? [You] have to be aware of yourself and your  position.’

Uneasy cohabitations of insiders and outsiders are central to filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha’s 1994 essay ‘Other Than Myself, My Other Self’  (2011). Using literary sources concerning Morocco as her springboard,  Minh-ha explores the identity produced when a traveller defines herself  as non-tourist ‘other.’ She indicates mistranslation’s potential for  opening new intercultural interpretations, suggesting that ‘deliberate  mis-seeing is necessitated to bring about […] critical blindness and  critical insight.’ (42) Accepting one’s ‘otherness’—and even welcoming  the epistemological errors this exilic identity entails—is crucial in  accepting intercultural diversity. Laxe’s acceptance of being foreign  echoes Minh-ha’s notion of exile. So too does Rivers’ film, albeit  pushing the figure of foreign director to an extreme. From a ‘deliberate  mis-seeing’ of Laxe and the Moroccan community, Rivers achieves  destabilisation and critical insight.

‘Othering’ is the process of perceiving another person as  fundamentally different or independent from oneself. In a post-Holocaust  context, the notion of Other was taken up by philosophers including  Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, who suggested that the figure of  the unknowable Other was vital in preserving diversity against a fascist  order of sameness. Since then, Jean-Luc Nancy and others have continued  the notion of protecting alterity, tracing cinema’s potential role in  this mission. At the same time, acts of othering that alienate,  marginalise and discriminate have been exposed by post-colonial  discourse. Film theorists Laura Marks and Trinh T. Minh-ha engage with  these ideas and suggest that intercultural filmmakers, when making films  about supposed others, often position themselves as others. This othering of the self is a way to destabilize residual notions of directorial power.

Minh-ha’s essay anticipates philosopher Jacques Rancière’s proposal for politically engaged ways of seeing. In his book The Emancipated Spectator,  Rancière addresses the problem of art and film audiences occupying  overly passive roles in theatrical forms of spectatorship. He suggests a  solution in ‘the emancipated spectator,’ a figure that challenges the  conventional opposition between passive looking and on-stage acting. In  Rancière’s model, viewers (travellers in Minh-ha’s essay) achieve  emancipation by refusing radical distance, the distribution of roles,  and boundaries between territories. (2009: 17)  As a ‘traveller’s tale,’  Rivers’ project others itself by performing a series of  mistranslations: the information we expect from a narrative film is  transmitted in an erring direction.[1]


From its title onwards, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers  establishes tension between non-aligned ways of seeing. Making a film  about filmmaking, Rivers sets himself in opposition with Laxe—and yet,  because both are male European filmmakers, an othering of the self is  implicit. The Two Eyes multiplies viewpoints to criticise  conventional cinema’s scopic regimes. Rivers’ film squints, and we  squint to navigate its de-centered viewpoints, realizing that looking  can only ever be partial and, the more we see vision as contingent and  open to revision, the better.

The first half of Rivers’ film approximates a fairly conventional  ‘making-of’ documentary, following Laxe, his crew, patient local extras,  and equally patient mules that carry supplies. Laxe and the locals are  aware of Rivers’ camera and return it’s gaze, sometimes speaking to it.  In this sense, we cannot be voyeurs because we are exposed, behind  Rivers’ camera.

The first half of Rivers’ film approximates a fairly conventional ‘making-of’ documentary.

A crucial turning point occurs when we follow Laxe into a café (two  cups are brought on his tea tray: the other one perhaps for Rivers, the  ‘other’ brother) and Laxe looks out of the window. We cut to a shot of  his Land Rover speeding through the desert. The cut splits Laxe in two:  he watches himself outside, from inside the café. From this othering  split, Laxe’s fate spirals into nightmare. Laxe and the locals become  characters, and the camera shifts into an invisible apparatus of fiction  in a direct citation of conventional cinema. Our gaze is no longer  returned—and we would be free to become voyeuristic, were it not  for the first half of the film, which demonstrated that this kind of  looking is illusory and unethical. In Rancière’s terms, our safe  position in the auditorium has been destabilized. Through this  sequencing, from the first half’s documentary-style to the second’s  fiction, we become self-conscious of our way of looking. Some critics  missed this critical sequencing, alarmed by the second half’s apparent  demonization of Laxe’s Moroccan attackers. Sight & Sound  editor Nick James announces that ‘the narrative that follows [the first  half of the film] undoes that good work, offering images of a cruel,  unknowable foreign culture.’ (2015: 16) As with Bowles’ story, The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers  is not about Moroccans so much as it is about a Western anxiety of (and  attraction to) alterity, and how these emotions infuse cinematic and  literary representation. This is obvious if we pay attention to Rivers’  careful sequencing.


Between the film’s first and second halves, we cut from an external  shot of the Land Rover (an English vehicle in an African land), and find  ourselves looking past Laxe’s shoulder at the road outside. The  windscreen provides aperture framing that further separates us from the  landscape. What initially seems to be added sound is actually Laxe’s car  stereo. He is listening to drone metal music, which almost drowns out  ambient sounds, further symbolizing detachment from locality. Here our  eyes and ears are ‘not brothers,’ for what we see strains against the  soundtrack.

Parking his Land Rover at dusk, Laxe is distracted by a villager.  They walk down a rocky path, the camera following. Laxe is hit over the  head and his tongue is ripped out. The film completely changes.  Nightfall overtakes the shot and, as we peer into the darkness, a dog  gobbles up the tongue from the pathway. The language of film has had its  tongue ripped out too. In this way, borrowing savage details from  Bowles’ story, Rivers has othered his on-screen counterpart, and  proceeds to other film itself. Having lost much of his voice and all  capacity for coherent speaking, Laxe is undressed and re-clothed in a  jangling costume made from the jagged lids of tin cans. Now little more  than a percussive instrument, he has to dance for his attacker’s  friends, and is sold to a music troupe.

Relating to the idea of a loss of voice, Rancière’s essay ‘Ten Theses on Politics’  (2010) speaks well with Rivers’ film. Rancière suggests that political  activism hardly has a voice today because modes of governance that  implement borders, convention and law ‘police’ it, and control ‘what is  visible and what not, […] what can be heard and what cannot.’ (2010: 36)  Rivers pushes Rancière’s notion further. In his film, Western cultural  anxiety concerning the other—an anxiety responsible for cinematic  exoticism—is the ‘police.’ It is this policing that Rivers documents in  the film’s first half, and imitates through the narrative in its second.  Laxe represents the police, and Western anxiety as a whole. Given this,  the scopic regime in which Laxe operates formed the figure of his  attacker, and he was therefore silenced and obscured in an attack of his  own design. To repeat Minh-ha’s terms, the self was truly othered.

Whereas Rancière sees the police’s enforcement of silence as  oppressive, Rivers complicates the issue. The ripping out of Laxe’s  tongue denies him language, but Laxe then finds himself dressed in a  costume of recycled consumerism, becoming a percussive instrument with a  new voice. In this way, although the ‘police’ attempt silence by  removing Laxe’s tongue, Rivers introduces the loud costume that renders  silence impossible. Politics remains, and has been re-voiced in a  metallic, wordless cacophony. Oppression is recycled and re-voiced as  political dissonance, and filmic language is mis-translated,  destabilized, and re-voiced in a language of open questions.


Legerdemain, ‘light of hand,’ a performance of tricks with one’s  hands. Film has long been associated with illusion: in its form, as a  play of light and movement, and in its early exhibition, in the  theatrical spaces of magic lantern shows and conjuring tricks. Rivers  brings to light the illusion inherent in conventional cinema by filming  extras, props, booms and microphones. In one scene he shows a stunt  actor ‘fall’ from a cliff onto a mountain of padding below. In this way  we are emancipated: extending Rancière’s idea of the audience storming  the stage, we go backstage. Snapping clapperboards announce  Laxe’s multiple takes. Extras and mules stand waiting. One extra  performs his own tricks for Rivers’ camera. Laxe’s crew wears modern  outdoor gear while his actors wear traditional costumes. The space of  production and illusory filmic space at once interweave and bifurcate,  and Rivers’ film dances between the two.

The final shot in the film shows Laxe escaping from his captors and  the camera, off into the sunset. Using a telephoto lens that flattens  the receding landscape, Rivers creates the illusion that Laxe is not  running away at all—he seems to be running on the spot or even coming  towards us. The director character is caught in the flattening filmic  apparatus; Rivers is not letting Laxe, himself, or us escape.


By making feature film and installation versions of his project,  Rivers encourages us to consider what feature films are capable of  ‘doing’ that film installations cannot, and vice versa. But what is  striking is that such different methods (the ‘bodies’ of feature film  and installation) produce similar effects.

In the installation of The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, visitors  explore the BBC’s cavernous spaces, only recently vacated and still  filled with stage-sets and paint splatters. Rivers thus cites cinema’s illusory nature by siting  the installation in a space of film production, deconstructing the  notion of conventional film right where film is constructed. The total  running time for all works is well in excess of an hour. The films are  looped and not intended to form a complete, linear narrative. The sense  of control usually afforded viewers of a feature film or finite  collection of artworks is thus shattered.

Screens are enclosed in containers built with material from film  sets: by salvaging such materials, Rivers translates the fakery and  manipulation of film production, evident in the first half of the  feature film, into the physical language of installation. The exterior  walls are jagged, and seating inside is made of the same splintery  chipboard. The installation at once mirrors the makeshift materiality of  a production workshop, and refuses audiences the plush upholstery of  conventional cinema auditoria. Viewers are thus brought closer to film  not through suture, which sews us into film’s diegesis, but by inviting  us inside film’s illusion-making mechanism. Laxe’s tin costume is also  exhibited, joining the fake walls and paint-splatters in a confession of  artifice.

Walking from one screen to another, and from one studio to the next,  viewers create montage on foot, and can consider the manipulative nature  of cinematic jump cuts. Moving from one room to the next can be seen as  a physical translation of the language of the film cut. But Rivers  mis-translates cinema: Min-ha’s critical mis-translation occurrs because  viewers cannot follow a clear path at the BBC. Without time indications  it is unclear when to ‘cut’ to the next room, and viewers must make  their own physical edit of the space and material. Such physical and  spatial translation of the feature film thus lets us glimpse what lies  between the cracks of fiction.

Audiences able to visit both the installation and a cinema screening  can therefore unpack—in an immersive and corporeal way—some of  Rancière’s ideas about emancipated spectatorship, and Minh-Ha’s on  displacement and identity. Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen  are just a few examples of other artist filmmakers ‘travelling’ between  feature and installation formats on similar explorations of affect and  critical audience engagement. Writing about recent moving image installation work,  film theorist Erika Balsom advocates the critical potential of  installation by citing the etymology of the verb ‘to exhibit,’ which  stems from the Latin ex- (out) and habere (to hold).  Exhibition presents something for examination (2013: 13). In this sense,  Rivers’ installation exhibits cinema, projecting onto walls (and  suspended screens) and thereby holding it out for us to view,  scrutinize, and physically negotiate with our bodies. On the other hand,  Balsom sees spectacular film installations in white cube galleries (or  on their facades, as with Doug Aitken at MoMA)  as exemplifying late-capitalist commoditisation. In her often quite  pessimistic rendering, the gallery that houses film can too easily  become ‘a technologized space of spectacle.’ (31) But while the white  cube is far from a neutral container, it is important to realise that  absolutely no space is neutral. Moreover, Rivers is not searching for  neutrality. The gallery (or Artangel’s site), as much as the cinema, is  part of a scopic regime. Artangel’s commissions, known for their  spectacular settings, and Rivers’ use of the BBC prop department,  accept—and further extend—the provocative potential in having viewers  walk through architectures of film, spectacle, manipulation, and public  consumption.


Experiencing an installation of excess, and a feature film of  spiralling menace and intrigue, I appreciate what Minh-ha calls  ‘critical blindness and critical insight.’ (2011: 42) In wondering what  it is that I have just seen, and where it is that I have just been, my  position as a spectator is destabilised and brought closer to the  non-aligned vision of the film itself, and those we see in the film, making films.

Experiencing both formats of the project, I find myself questioning  my role as a gallery- and cinemagoer. The figure of Rancière’s  emancipated spectator seems to embody both roles—roles that are  increasingly blurred as feature films become more open-ended and film  installations borrow cinematic apparatus and history. Rivers’ project  propels this welcome confusion of boundaries between territories,  encouraging viewers to refuse conventional distributions of roles.  Neither quite in Morocco, the BBC, or Harvard Film Archive’s auditorium,  I reassess my position and—most crucially—how I place myself with  regard to other films and installations too.[2]  The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers  invites us to look toward our consumption of cinema and art (and by  extension, the locations they depict) with questions regarding the ways  in which we see, understand and relate to other cultures. In our current  climate of immigration disputes, where national responses to displaced  peoples have profound and often devastating effects on intercultural  relations, projects like Rivers’ are vital for re-thinking place and  representation.


Balsom, Erika. Exhibiting Cinema In Contemporary Art. Amsterdam University Press, 2013.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas Of Emotion : Journeys In Art, Architecture, And Film. New York: Verso, 2007.

James, Nick. ‘diving For Pearls,’ In: Sight & Sound, Nov 2015, Vol. 25 Issue 11, 16.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus : On Politics And Aesthetics. New York: Continuum, 2010.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. ‘other Than Myself, My Other Self,’ In: Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism And The Boundary Event. London: Routledge, 2011.


[1] Giuliana Bruno Says The Idea Of Erring (From The Latin Errare,  ‘to Stray’) Leads Us To Consider Error And Straying From Standardized  Positions (Mapped Spaces, Precisely-dated Events) Into ‘other’  Territories As An Epistemological Stance. (Atlas Of Emotion: Journeys In Art, Architecture, And Film. New York: Verso, 2007.)

[2] Represent Derives From Re- (Expressing Intensive Force) + Praesentare ‘to Present’. Middle English: Via Old French From Latin Praesent- ‘being At Hand.’ Oxford Dictionary Of English (3 Ed.) (Ed. Angus Stevenson) Oxford: Oup. 2010.

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Becca Voelcker