Counting’s fifteen linked chapters conjoin city symphony, diary film, and personal/ political essay (documentary’s unruly stepchildren) to build a vivid portrait of contemporary life. Shot in locations including Russia, Istanbul, and New York City, its subjects range from naturally occurring Moscow street theater to NSA spying to the dismantling of Brooklyn landmarks. In Cohen’s 30 year exploration of documentary as a path of open inquiry, the film is perhaps his most personal reckoning.
by Jem Cohen
Skywriting, the piece that initiated the Counting project and now constitutes its final chapter, was made in reaction to the death of filmmaker Chris Marker, whose work and death affected me deeply. While I did not know him well, he was hardly the recluse that he’s often stereotyped to be. We were in occasional correspondence for over a decade, met a few times, and the film’s final epigram is drawn from one of his emails. I’d once sent him a young filmmaker’s first effort (Garret Scott’s Cul de Sac) and with characteristic generosity he responded that he felt it was a masterpiece. A few years later, Scott died suddenly. I reported the sad news to Chris and he wrote back noting the recent death of the sound engineer for his Le Joli Mai and reflecting, in his matchless way, on loss, memory and Walter Benjamin, whom we both revered. The pebble of those words became the ripples of this film.
So, I made Skywriting, and then kept going, pulling from my archive and shooting more whenever I could. What began as a loose and personal tribute with attendant “markers” (the most obvious being cats) took off into other territory altogether. It became a portrait of the world as I saw and experienced it over the last few years, in a sense a kind of home movie, and a way of navigating difficult times. It also became a way of thinking about documentary itself – and a reaction against certain tendencies in the field – in particular, the increasing pressure to conform to formulas, most often related to “three-act storytelling” built around characters who embark on “arced journeys with satisfying conclusions.” While fine films have been made via that template, there whole other realms of documentary based on registering life as it unfolds, where observation and close listening are primary and little can be scripted, much less “pitched.” These films take on the idiosyncratic forms that personal engagement, rather than the marketplace, demands. Often, these films are also deeply political. (I think not only of Marker, but of many filmmakers whose work I am thankful for – from Vertov, Vigo, and Jennings, to contemporaries including Farocki, Akerman, Benning, and Varda).
In regards to my own work, Counting continues in a mode that I sometimes think of as life-drawing, in which free observation of uncontrolled events plays a crucial role. In reaction to my last film, Museum Hours, a woman in Long Island came up to me after the screening, which was at a strip mall. She said “I had nothing to hold onto but I also had everything to hold onto.” (I am hard pressed to pin down exactly what this new film is about, but it could be about that.)
It’s about riding subways, planes, and trains; it is in fact affected by jet lag. It’s about the afternoon light on a visitor’s face. (Does it matter that this very light from my own backyard will soon be blocked by a luxury condo tower, one of thousands now obliterating countless neighborhoods across the globe…?)
It’s about Gareth walking Tom and Tom walking their dog. It’s about seeing blood on the subway platform. It’s about the Jewish Telegram joke (“Start worrying, details follow.”) It’s about animals and music; without them we are lost.
Most of all then, the project embodies an insistence which many filmmakers have shared but which Marker exemplified – that the most interesting terrain is the grey area between recognized categories and genres, the no-man’s land where we actually live.
|Produced by||Gravity Hill Films|
|Executive Producers||Patti Smith, Ryan Krivoshey, Graham Swindoll, Peter Sillen / Brendan Doyle, Paolo Calamita|
|Senior Advisor||Guy Picciotto|
|Post Production||Metropolis Post, NYC
Colorist: Jason Crump
|Audio Post Production||Rumble Audio
Re-recording Mix: Ryan Billia
Sound Design: Billia, Cohen
|Post Production / Online Assitant||Sam Schnorr / C41|
|Assistant Researcher||Lisa Bell Weisdorf|
Dirty Three – “Furnace Skies” (Ellis, Turner, White)
From Toward The Low Sun
The Evens – “Minding Ones Business (Farnia/ Mackaye)
Xylouris White – “Forging” (Credits)
The Double (On Eve & Simon’s Rooftop)
White Magic (At Union Pool)
Xylouris White (At Church of Electric Dirt)
|Additional Audio (excerpts)||Andy Moor/ Yannis Kyriakides, “Psyche” (Unsounds 47U) | Ashley & Foster, “Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be” | St. Petersburg (V.O.), Sergey Bykov|
“Sublime. Finds beauty and grace at the most unexpected moments.” – New York Observer
“Beautiful. Captures the fragments of contemporary life, both lasting and ephemeral.”
– Hollywood Reporter
“Cohen’s most palpably personal and affecting film…a gorgeously photographed drift through cities.”
– The Guardian
“…composes images, sound and music with remarkable intensity, combining them into a hypnotic foray”
– The Independent
“A free-wheeling travelogue told across fifteen chapters, Cohen’s latest is a composite of ideas forged through hypnotic visuals that leads the viewer on a mesmerising expedition through the city streets of such sprawling metropolises as New York, Moscow and Istanbul.”
– Cine Vue
“Non-narrative in the most freeing sense…” -Indiewire