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31 October 2015: Jem Cohen: A Day in the Lives

For the first part of our Microscpective series curated by Gareth Evans, we are thrilled to present an afternoon and evening of films by one of contemporary cinema's truly independent talents, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jem Cohen. Defender of celluloid, advocate of creative, political and social autonomy and one of the medium's natural collaborators, Jem himself will be here to introduce the UK cinema premiere of his latest feature essay, Counting. He will be in conversation with Gareth Evans, Film Curator at Whitechapel Gallery.  

From empathetic and impressionistic portraits of cities, people and places, to his enduring relationships and collaborations with musicians such as Patti Smith, REM, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Elliot Smith and Fugazi, Cohen’s prolific body of work – more than 70 films over three decades – is widely considered as one of the most significant in international independent cinema. Including features, essay and diary films, documentaries, installations and music works, Cohen’s output is rooted in experimental film, the traditions of street photography and urban aesthetics, and the collaborative qualities of the American alternative music scene.  

Lost Book Found
Jem Cohen
1996 | 37 min | B/W | Digital

The result of over five years of Super-8 and 16mm filming on New York City streets, Lost Book Found melds documentary and fiction into a complex meditation on city life. Influenced by the work of Walter Benjamin, Cohen created "an archive of undirected shots and sounds, then set out to explore the boundary" between genres. During the process, Cohen said, "I found connections between the street vendor, Benjamin's 'flaneur', and my own work as an observer and collector of ephemeral street life." "Its beauty is quite ineffable. What it actually does is capture the subconscious of the city itself, the dream state of the whole past existing in simultaneous disarray." – Luc Sante

Museum Hours
Jem Cohen
2012 | 107 min | Colour | Digital

Cohen's highly acclaimed feature is a lyrical and moving tribute to the power of art, a hymn to friendship, and a subtle portrait of the city of Vienna and its margins.  

"Quietly amazing, sneakily sublime. Mr. Cohen, a New York film-maker and video artist with an eye for rough urban landscapes and eccentric artistic characters, is a patient observer and a cunning, subtle storyteller. Museum Hours seems to wander and ruminate, collecting stray moments and fleeting impressions that gradually – and perhaps only in retrospect – snap together to reveal an intriguing pattern of emotion and significance. Watching the film is not really like looking at a painting, but the way an art historian looks at Bruegel has something in common with the way Mr. Cohen instructs us to pay attention to the world… This movie is rigorously and intensely lifelike, which is to say that it’s also a strange and moving work of art." – A.O. Scott, New York Times

Benjamin Smoke
Jem Cohen, Peter Sillen
2000 | 72 min | B/W | Digital
Introduced by Jem Cohen 

"Cohen’s is a cinema of transience and dissipation, of patient archiving and spontaneous revelation. Drawn to the derelict and dilapidated, he records his subjects – musicians, townscapes – piecemeal over time, sometimes on scraps of different film stock. Cohen and collaborator Peter Stillen outline the bare bones of dissolute drag queen and singer-songwriter Benjamin’s biography, mostly as expounded by the man himself: early flirtations with his mother’s wardrobe; musical and other adventures fronting the Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke; his affliction with 'the HIV thing'; his death in 1999, aged 39. Cohen first arrived on the scene in '89, whence the film’s scratchy, present tense scrapbook proceeds in fits and starts, with an eye for the changes fermenting in his locale of Cabbagetown, Alabama. Benjamin’s music, meanwhile, heard in snatches of rehearsals and shows, occupies that dark hollow between American folk and punk, Harry Smith and Patti Smith." – Nick Bradshaw, Time Out London

Jem Cohen
2015 | 111 min | Colour | Digital
Followed by a Q&A session with the director

In fifteen linked chapters shot in locations ranging from Moscow to New York to Istanbul, Counting merges city symphony, diary film, and personal / political essay to create a vivid portrait of contemporary life. Perhaps the most personal of Cohen's films, Counting measures street life, light and time, noting not only surveillance and over-development but resistance and its phantoms as manifested in music, animals and everyday magic.

"At one point in Counting, a wistful meditation on the world, its beauties, mysteries and injustices, Mr. Cohen cuts from a photograph of Soviet cosmonauts to a view out a plane window. There are a number of aerial images scattered throughout the movie, which Mr. Cohen has stitched together from visual fragments that he shot over a period that took him from Coney Island to Moscow...  Protest, by turns organized and more diffuse, is a leitmotif in Counting, though it’s easy to see the entire movie – with its insistence on ordinary beauty and its undertow of leftist politics – as an act of resistance. For the most part, Mr. Cohen’s protest is quietly expressed, although it gathers force with the repetition of certain visuals, notably with the images of building construction and seemingly uprooted men and women. Over the course of the movie, the references to gentrification, commercialization, urban overbuilding and the lack of affordable housing dovetail with Mr. Cohen’s own marginalized status as a New York artist working outside the cinematic commercial mainstream who, as you see, is watching a condo go up right outside his window." – Manohla Dargis, New York Times