Jem Cohen on Creating an "Experiential Documentary," Opening at BAM

Filmmaker Jem Cohen
(Photo by Megan Cump)

This week, artist and filmmaker Jem Cohen stages a unique multimedia project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival, in conjunction with Wordless Music. “We Have An Anchor” combines footage shot in Nova Scotia with live musical accompaniment, courtesy of Jim White (Dirty Three), Guy Piccioti (Fugazi), and members of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Thee Silver Mount Zion, and White Magic. Debuted last year in Troy, NY (where it was commissioned for its Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center), this will also be its New York City premiere, running in three showings tonight through Saturday. Scott Indrisek spoke with Cohen about his “experiential documentary.”

Can you talk a bit about the significance of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, how the place spoke to you — both as a traveler and for its visual subject?



Cape Breton is pretty isolated, often very wild; beautiful and tough in equal measure. It hasn't been destroyed by overdevelopment, corporate advertising and so on. It reminds me of Scotland and Wales, which I explored a little as a kid. But it's also hard to know. Everything isn't spelled out for you and the people are very independent and sometimes protective. They've seen some hard things. And every place has a secret history, odd intersections of science and folklore and people, which in Cape Breton includes some extraordinary artists — June Leaf and Robert Frank are the ones I most indelibly associate with the place — along with some very fine poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop and Don Domanski. Visually, it's very elemental there. Ocean, wind, sky, and woods are the dominant facts and it's nice to work with those things. And [to work with] with time, which feels very different there. 


Is We Have An Anchor a 'documentary project' in the sense that it's trying to present a literal or factual truth about a place, or is the interpretation more poetic (along the lines of what we might call 'creative fiction'?)


The project has little to do with literal or factual truth; it's what I call an experiential documentary in that it's mostly about how a place feels, which includes an immediate sensory aspect and a more elusive lyrical quality that sometimes lies beneath the surface. Walker Evans used the term 'lyric' in regards to the way that facts can be poetic, maybe especially if they aren't prettied up too much. But Anchor doesn't try to lay out a history or deliver information, and it is an outsider's view. I don't pretend otherwise for a minute. That said, I went there quite a few times over at least ten years and it really got under my skin. Almost all of my work mixes notions of documentary with something else, something more ephemeral, or more personal, or more open.?


What about the physical or technical layout at BAM? What can we expect to see on stage as the action unfolds?

It's not a theater piece, but there are times when we hope to activate the space in ways that a normal movie doesn't. I got to work a bit with a team, Dawn of Man, that specializes in unusual projections, so we're doing some things that are entirely removed from what happens in a normal movie theater. Once again, I circle back to the in-betweenness; it's not a movie and it's not a concert — there's a multiplicity of images, a layering which is also reflected in the sounds, which range from very ethereal and quiet, to loud and stormy. Very loud and stormy. But I wasn't trying to get too fancy in terms of foregrounding the tech or the production scheme. I wanted the emphasis to remain on the moving image and the live sonics. I have a lot of faith in those two things.


Will the performance be similar on each evening, or is there a progression or transition between each night, perhaps some room for improvisation between the different elements?


The score is not improvised. It has to be pretty tightly controlled because it dips in and out of the more documentary parts of the main projection. There are interwoven texts — fragments of science, poems, stories, and natural environmental sounds — quite a few distinct elements that need to be respected. They are like islands in the score. Each iteration of the show (this is the third) has been different and these are musicians that deserve room to move, so it could never be the same night to night, but it isn't at all like they're just feeling their way along and doing what they happen to do. We're working from a map, so there will be more similarity than difference night to night, but it's still very much a live event that can never be repeated in the same way. And this is our first time with guest vocalist Mira Billotte from White Magic, so there is a new element there as well.


How have you choreographed or directed the interplay between the musicians, the projected film, the texts, and so on?

I gave the musicians fragments and ideas, both sonic and pictorial, and then we worked together directly to the edits of the main film, and they also went off and worked in clusters on their own. It's quite structured, but it needed to remain rough around the edges because the experience, the place itself, is rough around the edges. And the choice of musicians is very much part of the whole, their ability to ride a very dynamic course with grace and ferocity is what elevates the whole thing. The piece is structured, but once the ingredients are in place, I have to let it go in some ways. It's simply a different beast than when I'm working on a film made of single images in progression with a locked track. It changes each time it happens, and takes curious turns, like a journey should. I'm actually very uptight about image and sound in juxtaposition, and working on my own I have different rules. This kind of live show forces me to relinquish certain stricter ideas to see if other approaches can work: I learn from it, we learn from it, and something can happen in the venue in the moment that you just have to experience then and there.


We Have An Anchor” will be at Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 26 – 28. Tickets are available here.


To see images from the work, click on the slideshow.