I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
With his his most recent film, Counting (2015), Jem Cohen continues to draw inspiration from the quotidian, compelling moments that unfold before his lens. His previous film, Museum Hours (2012), a hybrid fiction about an Austrian museum guard’s friendship with an adrift foreigner, was initially born of Cohen’s grassroots explorations of Vienna and eventually morphed into narrative. After a quarter century of noncommercial, essentially underground filmmaking, Cohen struck into new territory and the film had a wide theatrical run. Despite the success of Museum Hours, for Counting Cohen eschewed the constraints and timetables necessary to raise a large production budget and stripped his filmmaking down to the bone. The result, built in fifteen numbered chapters, is a feature-length film more enigmatic, far-ranging, open-ended, complex, political, and personal than previous efforts. Traversing cities such as Istanbul, Moscow, Sharjah, and New York, Cohen takes to the streets with a small HD camera to register the indelible details and tectonic shifts of his surroundings. Counting is cinema dedicated to the everyday practice of walking, observing, and recording, punctuated by larger political events as well as private struggles. It’s a swirling, kaleidoscopic work in service of powerful reflections on the fate of public space, the labor of solo filmmaking, and the exigencies of personal upheaval.
— J.P. Sniadecki
J.P. SniadeckiWe know where you are counting, but how are you counting? What are you counting, and why are you counting?
Jem CohenAs for how, I did the production as a one-person band, handling the logistics, shooting, and sound recording. On rare occasions while wandering in the foreign cities I had a local companion. I edited the film myself, but then did get to finish with a great sound designer, colorist, and an occasional tech assistant. Shooting a film more or less on one’s own is an approach I’d bet you’re also very intimate with.
JPS Yes, for sure. My first few films, Songhua and Demolition, were solo projects, as well as the later short The Yellow Bank and the most recent feature, The Iron Ministry. The other features (Foreign Parts, People’s Park, and Yumen) were made with one or two other codirectors, but those collaborative arrangements still retained much of the texture and immediacy of what is possible with solo projects because the small team is still so low impact, flexible, and closely entwined with every step in the process.
JC It rankles me to hear people declaring, “No one makes a movie alone.” And it’s often said inside the world of so-called independent film. Don’t tell that to James Benning, Leslie Thornton, Peter Hutton, or Deborah Stratman. I’d rather not have to make movies entirely on my own, but sometimes, that’s the only way it’ll happen. There’s a misconception that an army of technicians and producers somehow make a film more “real” than one person taking on most or all of the jobs—even though the latter might result in something much truer to the original vision at hand. Films done without a big apparatus are almost always cursed with the label “little,” when the size of a film should really be a measure of its power or presence or originality, not of the budget or of how long the credits roll. I think your films Foreign Parts and Demolition are giant. Forough Farrokhzad’s devastating The House Is Black is far “bigger” than any Hollywood film I’ve seen in years. And it’s about twenty minutes long.
I certainly couldn’t have done Museum Hours on my own, but with Counting I just had to, as there was no backing to shoot it. So the “how” was a matter of keeping things fluid, cheap, and possible.
As for the “what”—well, I was counting almost everything I encountered: street life, light, weather, animals, and some intangibles, political or social or economic currents, and certain seismic changes in my own life. What we call documentary has to do with charting the world while it’s in full flux and reanimating it down the road, in the edit and then on screen. There’s a primal wonder in photographic retrieval of lost times and places—eradicated buildings, forgotten events, even just objects, cars, outfits, and, of course, people—situations, which at the moment of shooting, were often entirely mundane and taken for granted. Photography doubles the strength of our memories or even, as Chris Marker suggests, becomes them. I’ve come across portrait photos, like those used in old yearbooks, with the word proof stamped across the faces, and I say to myself, Indeed! That sheer sense of proof manifests more readily in documentary material than in narrative film’s recreations. But it’s tricky to attend to the disappearing world without leaning on nostalgia and sentimentality.
JPSHow do you avoid nostalgia and sentimentality? And are they things to avoid?
JCIt’s a bit like cliché or irony. You can’t enact decrees against them and sometimes they’re even wonderful, but they’re things to be leery or careful about. When New Yorkers wistfully express that they’ve lost their city, that they miss the corner store, their feelings may be nostalgic and cliché, but they are also totally legit in a city with 318 Duane Reades/Walgreens and 536 Dunkin Donuts. That’s a far cry from nostalgia for ’80s TV shows or something. The danger of sentimentality has more to do with airbrushing away burrs and ambiguity in favor of an uncomplicated, and therefore deceptively strong, feeling. In film it ties in with the forced march toward happy endings or even a documentarian’s intention to “make people cry.” But an intense, shared viewing experience doesn’t require everyone feeling the same way at exactly the same time, which is all too easy to do in cinema—everybody crying together, liking or hating the same people, coming to the same conclusions on cue. As for cliché, maybe I skirt it in Counting by shooting Coney Island in midwinter, or featuring a street preacher’s rant. Not exactly groundbreaking moves, but frozen Coney was spectral, and I love the way that preacher says things like “Just like milk expires, we expire … ”
As to the “why” of Counting, and of what I do in general … Well, it helps me navigate and it fine-tunes my senses. I’m never bored. In fact, I’m astonished by this very beautiful and funny world, but also enraged and deeply saddened. Making the work is reckoning with all that while finding new ways to stubbornly insist that everyday matters can and should be central to cinema. And let’s not forget celebration, kicks. There was a lot of joy in the counting, in the actual making, and substantially less joy with festival rejections and the difficulty, the near impossibility, of pulling off the theatrical release, even with great help. I have to say, though, the problem is less with viewers than with the blunt economics of film distribution in a hype-obsessed, highly distracted world. People came to see it and most viewers seemed quite interested, but we still couldn’t keep it afloat, couldn’t compete. The release and rejections knocked me back a bit and I stopped shooting for a while. But the world’s just too damn interesting, so that didn’t last long.
JPSMuseum Hours did so well, and you also showed We Have an Anchor with projections and live music at BAM and the Barbican. With all that, you didn’t find it easier to get your next projects made?
JCI’m finding it harder than ever before. There have always been obstacles, but the bottom seems to drop out ever further in terms of institutional support for unconventional or noncommercial work. Meanwhile, basic structures supporting independent filmmaking have been undermined by the expectation that everything should be online and free. The Museum Hours release was such a gratifying surprise—not because it made us a ton of money, that doesn’t happen, but because it circulated so much farther than I’m used to, even though it’s also a rather odd, hybrid film. But it had zero US funding. I am very thankful that both Museum Hours and Counting got theatrical runs. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to make films and would never be so naive as to expect it to get easy. But there’s a shift now from having to hustle to make the work, which was always the case, to very different expectations about filmmakers being full-on entrepreneurs and self-promoters. And there’s a looming focus-group, metrics-based calculus being pushed—“What story are you telling and through what characters; who exactly will it serve, and how would you pitch it in an elevator?” I find basic sustainability tougher than fifteen or twenty years ago … a lot of people do.
JPSCounting is filmed in New York City, Moscow, Istanbul. Why these particular locations?
JCNone of them were exactly chosen, though I was dying to get to Russia and Turkey for years. Gigs and screenings got me overseas and then I made occasional detours. But there was no expressly dedicated budget to go to particular places. That would’ve been so nice, but again, it wasn’t in the cards. I found it fascinating, though, to take the temperatures of places that were sort of accidentally delivered to me and then to see what commonalities surfaced, and there were many. There’s a scientific angle to taking random core samples and comparing them.
JPS Where did you film Skywriting, the chapter with the VHS tape flittering off the mosque?
JCSkywriting was mostly filmed in the United Arab Emirates, and a few bits in New York City. I decided not to identify the UAE because that last chapter takes on a different role than all the others. Maybe the place becomes all the places we get lost in, filming. There’s an old ballad that Odetta covered, with a good version by Lambchop: “I’m a stranger here, I’m a stranger everywhere. I would go home but honey, I’m a stranger there.”
JPSI feel universally at home yet always lost, and that combination leads to a freedom from the tight tethers of a fixed agenda, which then opens up all kinds of possibilities. And that’s where the gifts enter, like the dance with Julia in Foreign Parts, or in Demolition, the woman stealing rebar in the early morning hours on the work site. They’re delivering something I could never imagine or script, and I feel grateful for having been present.
JCYeah, I come around to that exact lostness again and again. Maybe that is our home. I’m also literally lost much of the time; it’s embarrassing but useful. Stumbling onto things as a modus operandi and life’s work. Very ineffective pitch language! In the Skywriting chapter I stumbled onto these specific details, some of which remain miraculous to me, like the giant tree whose exposed roots are full of junk, including parts of a cinderblock wall, bottles, scraps of clothing. It’s like an ancient strainer, a sieve of time. And the ribbons of VHS tape caught in the mosque tower—so strange and mesmerizing. It’s majestic, and, if you recognize what they are, also pathetic. But I wanted a mapless geography—that section is about a way of working and a life I’ve spent working in that way, not so much about the particular city. Sharjah is rather unspectacular, a working class neighbor to Dubai, with none of Dubai’s grotesque, high-capitalismo madness. And unlike Dubai, it’s walkable.
JPSIn your process of making Counting, as in many of your other films, you are the proverbial flaneur. I admire (and relate to) the way filming results from a daily practice of walking, wandering, meandering, looking, framing. Can you describe the experience of this form of shooting for Counting in the context of your life’s work, and what might be wholly unique about it, and what might be in direct dialogue with your previous films?
JCIt’s hard to talk about the process of shooting because it’s kind of like breathing. When it’s going well, the eyes and ears get big and the mind goes very small. It has to be pretty automatic and it is somewhat in a tradition of street photography—either hit-and-run or a lot of standing around, waiting. Being maximally open, receptive, and ready, rather than trying to dictate the project in advance. But I can’t honestly remember much about things like framing choices. They’re so instinctive, and I don’t like to be precious about them. I’m leery of shots that are too beautiful, too “composed.” If someone says, “It’s gorgeous,” I wonder if I’m on the wrong track. But it’s a double edge. If there’s not enough beauty, that weakens things too. And events happen so quickly that you often lose the option of being super conscious about composition. But after many years you do get used to having the camera being a sort of limb—or an organ that just sees your way. Increasingly, I also do stills and installations, and it’s different for each territory. My Polaroid work, for example, tends somehow toward solidity in space and anonymity in time. I painted some when I was starting out, but I wasn’t good and maybe the stills are the paintings I wished I could make. But all told, the throughline in all of the work, whether documentary, narrative, moving image, or stills, is much stronger than the differences. It might surprise others to hear it, but for me Museum Hours wasn’t a departure at all. I wandered off the streets into a museum, summoned some characters, and then we wandered back into the city together. Even when scripted, the spirit was maintained.
As for the flaneur tradition, it’s a fine one, though not untroubled. In terms of loose but obsessive urban circumnavigation, and street photography, it’s crucial to my work. But in the Walter Benjaminian universe (which may well be the one we’re still living in) there’s also some ambivalence attached. The flaneur is born out of and into the new leisure/spectacle world, and they do all that walking and looking out on the streets in part because they may not be comfortable or welcome or just can’t afford to be inside. It’s hard to tell if all that strolling and looking is a job or the lack of a job. But as Luc Sante points out in his amazing Paris book [The Other Paris], the appearance of the flaneur also gave rise to writers and photographers “giving voice to the great text of the streets.” Luc notes a key distinction that has bearing on what we do as filmmakers—the flaneur isn’t a reporter. Reporters generally have particular questions, and they often want particular answers. I believe, deeply, in the need for making a record of things, and even trying to do so without a set agenda, in part because clearly documenting the existing world inevitably unveils things, dark forces included. But it can feel simultaneously necessary and paltry, tossing pebbles at the pyramids, making little notes as the nooks and crannies disappear. And if the only place left for the flaneur is the global mall, it’ll be kind of a shitty gig.
On another level altogether, you can be a flaneur in the editing or within your own footage if you work from a home archive as I do. You wander and get lost in the material, again and again. It’s exciting archaeology, though the weight of the archive—the maintenance and storage—are getting overwhelming. Still, you really get to see the echoes down through time … In Counting there are crucial shots from airplanes, just as there are at the end of CHAIN from 2004 and in Glue Man from 1989. Aerials have become a key point of return, as have shots of birds. I just saw a beautiful 1950s Georges Franju short, Hôtel des Invalides, and there are the birds, above the veteran’s hospital, and he takes his time with them. Very early in my work, I used the term “birds as punctuation,” and that still holds. Other animals too. On a very obvious level, the cats in Counting were used in homage to Marker—the cat was his primary spirit animal. But it’s not like I wouldn’t have shot them anyway.
JPSCounting doesn’t feel entirely like a work of free-form street photography from the hip, for you are often framing for meaning, not just with your editing, but with your way of composing in the moment. There’s a strong intention and attention, a kind of in situ editing, from behind the lens. What concerns and questions—beyond the immediate moment of the filmmaking encounter—were shaping your shooting during this time? They seem deeply personal, both in the sense of psychology, family, community, and the political …
JCSome ideas or themes wheel around like birds, though I’m rarely conscious of them while shooting. The working path over time becomes one long street, and you find yourself fighting to recuperate it from the same adversaries—homogenization, corporatization, erasure. So much of life is circumscribed now by real estate development that it becomes an almost overwhelming universal nexus of the personal and the political. Everywhere you go, old neighborhoods are strong-armed out of existence, sanitized, and people are getting squeezed out. It feels like a global conspiracy, which it is; oligarchs stashing their fortunes as property in ways that drastically transform and deaden cities; corporations and mayors like Bloomberg and branding agencies all hell-bent on helping commercialism dominate the landscape. I took some of that on in CHAIN and struggled over being too heavy-handed. New York felt more like itself then, so I leaned on other cities, whereas now I could easily shoot those condos and franchise stores on the Upper West Side or in Williamsburg. This takeover still has to be documented, and it does feel especially personal as I just lost the light in my apartment to one of these luxury towers. One whole chapter in Counting is essentially just holding onto that light. It’s a luxury tower with no affordable housing, which gives the change a political ugliness. It’s not just about cities transforming “naturally”; it’s about neighborhoods being sold to the highest bidder.
We rarely live full-time in a political moment, or more accurately, we’re so in it we can barely trace its outlines. I documented Occupy Wall Street with twelve rough newsreels, observing that sudden elevation of daily life into a kind of total, glorious, frustrating, frenzied intervention. But I wanted Counting to carry a sense of politics as part of a broader fabric, the whole cloth of living, wherein the political rises and dissipates in many smaller ways—it isn’t just about events, eruptions, protests, but about the landscape, what’s in the air all the time.
One shot says a lot to me about the frustration and joy of designated protest in today’s world: a long, long chain of climate change marchers passing a typical endless barricade, and a cop swings it open for just a second to let one person out. Well, nice of the cop, but how sick that every protest now is corralled in that way—like we have to be thankful that we’re let out to go to the bathroom. Those dangerous climate marchers! I like the marches, the big moments; they can be fantastic, but that shot registers ambivalence without valorizing or demonizing either side. That kind of ambiguity is important to the film but makes it harder for those who want to label it. Maybe it runs against dominant notions of political documentary, where films are often shoehorned into taking sides on one topical issue or advocacy battle. Sometimes that’s understandable and necessary, because people are trying to sway opinion in a particular struggle. I respect that but I don’t think it’s the only way for film to have political currency. It’s kind of a tightrope act, trying to make engaged work that isn’t about attempting to win people over, or to underscore what they already feel. Not everything in a film has to have that kind of intentionality. Reviewers repeatedly singled out (apparently) homeless people in Counting as something I set out to film. But in a world so riddled with extreme inequality, how do you not include homeless people in the landscape? You’d have to go farther out of your way to exclude them than to include them, and I never want to exclude them, so they often appear in my films, in different facets. On the other hand, sometimes I want to ring a bell loud and clear, as with using NSA testimony as voice-over in Counting. I hope some notion of political engagement is always there in my work. I’m very interested in how resistance manifests, not just through literal opposition, as in the protests, but as things that can’t be controlled. Counting is a register of damages and recuperations, with lots of other elements in the mix.
JPSAt the same time, there are moments—like the flower montage or the Lipton tea bag brewing in the plastic cup on the street corner in Moscow—when the act of filming seems guided by nothing more than an immediate perception of tangibility, beauty, or simply the very fact of being, of existence. Can you talk about these moments and why you included them in the film?
JCYou mentioned unforeseen gifts, and those are two that fell out of the ether. Musicians, certain ones anyhow, are another gift. And without these things, we’re screwed. So even moments that seem to be just registers of being might, in a way, be counteractive to a status quo. Looking hard at something that isn’t a screen or an ad; or looking as a kind of peaceful documentary “surveillance” rather than as a form of policing or what the NSA or the data miners do; or making music for the sake of music—can these be countercultural activities in a way? When making the film, I talked with Guy Picciotto about why animals are so important in it, and he noted that when we look at animals, we crack open the door to another reality. It puts us in a different mind, a different universe, which is, in a way, a political conception. Art, when it’s not primarily a commodity, can do the same. We need to access other possible realities, and to do so via avenues other than drugs and computer apps and buying stuff.
You could say there’s something Buddhist in the recognition of wind or light or a bottle cap or something that happens in any given passing moment. I’m not a Buddhist, but I feel a kinship there, a gratitude for what film and photography can do to gather these things up. And maybe even encourage them. Take the dance bits you mentioned, from Foreign Parts—where you dance with the woman as you film her, or a salvage worker doing the crazy improv horsey dance that goes on and on for the camera. You can’t plan or script that, you just have to notice and roll with it as long as it transpires, and then recognize how crucial it is to the film. I think of Jean Rouch’s awareness of what the camera can be—not only a detriment, an interruption, but a beautiful instigation, an invitation.
It seemed to be the specific occupation of a certain strain of filmmaker to make work based on careful but loose observation versus work that can be preconfigured and forced into the rubric of storytelling. Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s In the Street is seminal for me, as are Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx’s Les raquetteurs. The tradition ranges widely—Hutton, Benning, Jonas Mekas, Nathaniel Dorsky, Bill Brown, or Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, or Harun Farocki’s In Comparison, or Chantal Akerman’s D’Est. But they share a certain openness of approach, a willingness to let the world reveal itself. I’m also trying to come to terms with what happens to that tradition in an era of constant and relentless image-making via phones, apps, and so on. When once it was like a specific occupation to be a noticer and a margin-walker, now it’s omnipresent, but also terribly easy to do. It may be a great thing, this flood—I certainly love digging through piles of old snapshots. Maybe everyone’s noticing more. But the way you can just pick a preset “look” now and apply it to an image with an app gives me the willies. It can feel so unearned, cheaply appropriative—as if there was no such thing as finding one’s way to a particular form through experience and knowledge of materials, passed through one’s own eye, mind, hand.
JPS Perhaps related to this is the idea of the “sketch” in cinema. André Bazin, writing about the films of Roberto Rossellini, states, “Several of his films make one think of the sketch: more is implicit in the line than it actually depicts.” The sketch is at once an attempt to register a phenomenon with the utmost immediacy and a way to suggest, to open up, to lift a small gesture to the level of the remarkable, the revelatory, and the monumental. Does sketching in both these senses have any resonance for you? Can you talk about the idea of the sketch in relation both to your editing and your shooting?
JCAbsolutely. It’s very germane and a beautiful quote. I consider a lot of the work to be “life-drawing,” which is also the title of my current installation/photo show at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Of course sketching is different with different tools. Seeing June Leaf at work, or looking at drawings by Honoré Daumier or Bill Traylor—that direct transmutation through eye into hand onto paper—still strikes me as miraculous and irreplaceable. I wonder sometimes if film and photography aren’t too easy, in comparison.
JPSFilmmakers are often asked about how they edited their films. Some filmmakers, such as Wang Bing, say they prefer to edit the material shot for their films as soon as possible after shooting so as to lose neither the feeling of the filmmaking encounter nor the immediacy of the rushes. Other filmmakers spend months working through their footage, assembling cuts and then tearing them apart, agonizing over in and out points, digging into the rushes to be sure nothing is overlooked. Can you talk about your editing of this film? Not just the unique structure and logic (if any), but also the experience of editing it.
JCI love to edit. At its best, it’s wild, very mysterious. Free association, meaning not random juxtaposition of one thing with another, but freedom of possible connection—this can go next to that because of color, movement, weather, light; or because a sound pulls them together; or a voice-over gives them entirely new meaning; or these shots in proximity to those open the gates of hell. Sometimes it gets uncanny, and edits approach dream logic, which can actually be registered in cinema: things come out of, or drop into, black; recollections crossfade; we’re here and then suddenly we are fluidly there; or we float, and none of it feels impossible. Scenes from Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Abendland, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan, the end of your and Libbie Cohn’s People’s Park, or Werner Herzog at his best—it’s documentary entering a dream state, cut free from rules or expectations and fully embracing the experiential rather than imposing a set format. The way editing is often taught—solely in terms of screen direction and narrative logic and three acts—strikes me as oddly limiting. There are so many possible strategies.
In some chapters of Counting, the editing was guided by an almost real-time proposition; this was what I encountered between 4 to 6 PM on a day in Porto, Portugal in 2014. Other chapters run very freely across time. But over the long haul of the film, I wanted to edit by reverberation, by echo. There’s a section in a cab, in early morning snowy darkness, but you don’t know the city yet, and a face is silhouetted against the window. Many chapters later in Russia, I get that bad phone call from the States and have to rush home and then you might recognize that what follows is the same cab ride, the same person silhouetted … that circling back of memory. Or someone carries a bright red bag in midtown Manhattan and then there’s one carried in Sharjah, and it’s like it was passed around the globe. The refusal to hew to the linear hopefully makes the film very different on each viewing. A path is carefully laid down, but it’s crooked. Editing is an invitation to shake things up, including one’s own rules. Film schools should teach John Coltrane—how all of that practice, tradition, control is then put in service to a kind of full freedom, to exploring outside of the recognized forms.
I’m generally leery of musical scores. There’s none in Museum Hours, and I’ve always found so much to be disgusted with in music video that I pretty much ran away from it. But I found myself dropping two songs, almost in their entirety, into Counting. I was hardening my own doctrine and then it excited me to break it. It’s very interesting to see songs dealt with radically, as Pedro Costa does in Horse Money. And of course, sound design is so integral to editing. I worked with Ryan Billia and we had such a nice collaboration, forced in part because my on-camera recordings were often sub par, so we had to get very creative in replacing them, choosing when to get the tweezers out and create a specific sound, or making odd, buried collages.
JPSYour film is in many ways a diary film, though not explicitly so with voice-over or overt exhibitions of your interiority. Counting is not trying to omit the presence of the filmmaker, but yet we only hear your voice a few times, and see you in only four shots—your shadow in Turkey; when you open and close the hotel curtain; and the two reflections of you filming in the communal space in Russia. How did you make the decisions regarding the reflexive dimensions of the film, and the particular shape you wanted the film to take, given its admixture of the personal and the public?
JCI generally keep autobiography at arm’s length, though it sometimes creeps in. Lost Book Found and Amber City much reflected my life, but I had someone else speak the narrations, in part to distance it from the me, me, me. I love it when other people pull off the self-reflexive stuff, like Ross McElwee, or Agnès Varda, or Robert Frank, but it’s usually not what I do. And as much as I value and use deeply subjective, handheld camera work, I have an equal need for locked-down tripod shooting that sort of strips away my presence. Counting fully blends the two approaches, but it deals with a lot of very direct experience, including some devastation in my own family. So for those who do know me it leaps into the personal in a different, more explicit way than they’re used to. I had mixed feelings about that, but it took on a kind of inevitability. And I guess the old saw is true that at a certain age one begins to see a bigger picture, you get to where you can make out the curve of the earth. Counting took on some of that broader reckoning. Maybe it doesn’t always succeed, but it wasn’t made to succeed; it was made because I had to make it. I always wanted to be a cosmonaut.
J.P. Sniadecki is a filmmaker, anthropologist, and member of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. His films, among them The Yellow Bank (2010), People’s Park (2012), Yumen (2013), and The Iron Ministry (2014), have screened at festivals and museums around the world. Sniadecki teaches in the documentary media MFA program at Northwestern University, contributes to Cinema Scope and Visual Anthropology Review, and co-organizes the touring screening series Cinema on the Edge, which focuses on independent Chinese film.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee