Fern Silva’s debut documentary gently reminds us to consider our own planet before looking too deep into the stars. Rock Bottom Riser is an incredibly poignant film that places the Hawaiian archipelago at the center of conversations regarding space exploration. Silva’s experimental documentary fosters a careful juxtaposition between the Hawaiian wilderness and the cosmos as astronomers begin to construct a 30-meter telescope on the island chain’s most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. The kaleidoscopic vision of the island provides a necessary tether point for the much bigger conversations that Silva investigates through this film.
The film immediately plops the viewer deep into the Hawaiian wilderness, mesmerized by a peaceful grove moving wistfully in the wind. However, the peace is interrupted by a dry academic lecture regarding the colonial significance of an unrevealed painting. The incongruous visuals and audio serves as a shocking opening that swiftly makes its intentions clear. Silva’s film introduces a timeless conflict between Western science and Indigenous legacy and rights. The film is a powerful exposé about how science is a tool of colonization, desecrating sacred lands, and marginalizing native Hawaiians. Rock Bottom Riser prudently stitches together several interrelated issues without becoming a Western ethnography, and instead shows the shocking reverberations of colonialism into the present.
Rock Bottom Riser’s vibrant visuals capture the cosmos, tropical landscapes, and rivers of lava that line the Hawaiian archipelago. By sewing together these disjunctive scenes, Silva creates an incredible cogent monograph that is supplemented by Hawaiian voices and scientific lectures. Rock Bottom Riser is a masterful visual and auditory experience, and although its arduous scientific explanations may not always be clear, it never fails to engage. 70 min.