We Are Movie Cameras, Lucidly Dreaming
Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility…Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of Perception
Recently, I re-watched the classic experimental film, Man With A Camera (1929), written and directed by Russian Dziga Vertov (and marvelously edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova). Voted the number one documentary of all time by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, it’s a gem of a flick, the vibrancy of an early industrialized city on full display (actually, four cities spliced together: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa) and flaunting every known (and, until then, unknown) cinematic technique in the book — fades, reverse angles, crane shots, train shots, trick photography, panoramics, close-ups, nudity, births, deaths, marriages, divorces. And leitmotifs of self-referentiality: cameras filming cameramen at work (clambering, risking), or slyly turned on the audience, as if winking at us, camera to camera.
It is not only full of the visual surprises its editing brings, but has subtle humor and suggestive juxtapositions. The cameraman setting up in the beer mug is an amusing sequence. But there’s even an anticipation of horrid things to come, such as when we see a woman shooting at a target — ‘Uncle Fascism” — a man with a swastika. Hitler had made the swastika his symbol of choice in 1920. And when he wrote, “The Slavs are born as a slavish mass crying out for their master,” he had in mind Ukrainians. This is poignant: We know what the director behind this camera doesn’t know: behind the vibrancy depicted is a near future that includes a Ukrainian holocaust (Holodomor) and the Nazi onslaught of WWII.
In an essay in his book, Film Form, the highly-lauded filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein assailed Vertov and his use of slow-motion: “Or, more often, it is used simply for formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief as in Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.” (p.43) Jackstraw! A harsh denouncement of someone so inventive as Vertov. It’s a busy film, and its energy makes up for its deliberate lack of narrative structure. Vertov had criticized fictional films as being “the new opium of the people” (pushing aside religion, if you’re keeping score) and was, with Man With A Camera, looking to tell a story without explicit manipulation (no intertitles), a montage ceding interpretive authority to the viewer, much as we do free verse — especially, say, collage poetry.
Like Eisenstein, not everyone was impressed, but Man With A Camera does show the extraordinary range and depth of filmmaking’s potentiality. Film critic Roger Ebert once said of the film that “It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it.” If there’s one thing filmmakers are after is the creation of a new language, visual narrative, that may be akin to a writer finding her or his voice, arranging words, in such a way, that even the page-performing reader connects to the soul of the text, no matter how ineluctable the utterance.
Filmmaker and curator Pamela Cohn knows all about the medium’s gallant struggle for a cinematic language that is new, immediate, and accessible to the viewer. Originally from Los Angeles, Cohn has travelled the world as an arts journalist, educator, producer and photographer, and has been a consultant on dozens of films. Currently based in Berlin, she has been an expat now for 10 years, traveling throughout Europe and Asia, and Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers is the result of those intersections. Cohn sees her role with this book as a curator at a gallery of interconnected rooms with alternating ideas on one aesthetic; film language is spoken here, human experience is the entry fee.
Cohn says her inspiration for the method applied to the garnering of conversations and their presentation in Lucid Dreaming came as a result of watching Astra Taylor’s film, Examined Life, at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2008. She writes that it “inspired me greatly. The format with which she approached long and in-depth conversations with some of the world’s most renowned philosophers was very much in line with how I wanted to converse with filmmakers.”
Lucid Dreaming begins with a special, bracketed conversation with Barbara Hammer, who succumbed to cancer last year. In Vital Signs, Hammer attempted to capture the essence of her battle with death (“looking it right in the face,” she tells Cohn). She was a legendary New York filmmaker, of whom Cohn says, “she has left behind an oeuvre that is staggering not only in its fecundity, but in the way her legacy as a life-long working artist lives on in hundreds of filmmakers creating work today.” Her themes and cinematic interests are too innumerable to catalogue here, but, in the interview with Cohn, she discussed a book she was working on that broadly addresses her aesthetic focus: “sexuality, film form and structure, the politics of abstraction.” Her life and work are memorialized at her website.
Lucid Dreaming comprises seven dialogical sections: “Antonyms of Beauty”; “Sonic Truth: Visioning with Sound”; “Border Crossings; Power Plays: Disruption”; “Memory & Magic: Inter-dimensionality”; “Notes from the Interior”; and “The Embodied Camera”. There are discussions of technical considerations, visual politics, and the phenomenological components of subjectivity. The filmmakers come from various countries and cultures, and their stories are idiosyncratic, sometimes bizarre, and always rich with the possibilities of the human experience.
While she has placed the 29 filmmakers into these sections, to highlight an aspect or aspects of their work, Cohn insists that each artist is multi-faceted in scope and skill and could have been placed elsewhere. She gently admonishes the reader:
This is not a box of chocolates—there’s not one of every flavor. My purpose was not to introduce these filmmakers as merely representational of a group or a persuasion or a movement. They are individuals with something substantial to contribute to the overall discourse of making art in the twenty-first century.
The films these makers produce are separate from the dialogical conversations with Cohn expresses below, but the latter are, at the same time, are a parallel component, “a human-to-human conversation, full of grappling, spontaneity, improvisation, and the concomitant awkwardness and intimacy one experiences when you’re talking about deep and weighty matters with a virtual stranger.” Below is a sampling from the non-box of chocolates.
Section one, “Antonyms of Beauty,” draws from the aesthetic and personal experiences of Khavn, Roberto Minervini, Khalik Allah, and Shengze Zhu in their environments, whether native or by means of migration. Cohn describes their ‘mission,’
They all share a feeling of deep connection and rootedness…These makers have crafted their storytelling methods and narrative styles in relation to their particular home environments, unveiling what some of us might call the underbelly of society—people and places otherwise all too easy to ignore.
It’s a growing underbelly, impregnated by the dark forces of inequality and signs of social colony collapse. What it’ll finally give birth to is anybody’s guess, but cameras will be rolling, as we fade in and fade out of consciousness.
Khavn is a Filipino musician, poet, writer, and filmmaker, who believes, says Cohn that “there are ‘divine intersections’ everywhere you look.” He is best known for his feature film, Mondomanila. Khavn is described as a bundle of energy and idiosyncratic. During their interview, Cohn notes, Khavn would bolt from his seat and sprint down the street
his peripatetic muse caught by a flash of color, an interesting scent, or some other high-frequency sensation that shifted his inner compass and commanded him to follow it. He was gone, seen suddenly in the middle distance before you knew what was happening.
However, Cohn did manage to elicit some insightful observations from “the father of Philippine digital filmmaking.”
Pamela Cohn: The proliferation of your work is staggering. I come from a world where it takes some filmmakers several years to finish one film. You come at your work in such an intensely focused, obsessive, and unfiltered way.
Khavn: If I came at work in a more structured, commercial, strategic way, I don’t think I would have made the films that I’ve made. It is intuitive. I make music, too, but I really came to my voice through writing poetry, writing sometimes several poems a day. But in making cinema, I’ve tried to apply that same creative momentum…if you stop, somehow it’s hard to start up again.
PC: Can you explain what you’re reacting to in the environment where you work? You make everything where you live.
K: My cinema is also a reaction to…Hollywood itself, which dominates most movie screens there. I have this manifesto called Day Old Flicks. It’s coined after “one-day-old chicks,” a type of street food you find there. [These are, literally, one-day-old male chicks batter-fried and dipped in red chili sauce eaten whole, bones and all.] I’ve made feature films in a day. Shooting a short film over the course of several days is a luxury for me.
PC: There are pieces you work on solo and then there are pieces where you havea full crew working with you. How do those collaborations play out for you?
K: It’s definitely all about the alchemy…[once,in a spoof of Hollywood] I cast seven different actors to play the same character, all wearing the same outfit. I wanted to make a comment on the “thousand faces of a hero.” This is the prerogative of cinema versus let’s say writing. Literature on paper is static; it lives there like that forever. But cinema cannot be limited to the screenplay or to the actual production, or the shooting. It’s about everything that happens. That’s what makes the film.
PC: What stops people, do you think? Can we really be a world of artists? Would that work? Why aren’t we all making art every day?
K: One way not to implode is to explode on a regular basis. Not just a simple explosion but a productive one, while following your bliss.
Roberto Minervini’s cinema often seeks out and portrays isolated rural people, just getting by. The Other Side débuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. The film, says Cohn, centers on the lives of two drug addicts—again, people Roberto knew intimately—living deep in the bayous of Louisiana, home to destitution, desperation, and a landscape roamed by anti-government right-wing militias who train there.
PC: You always have very strong women at the center of your films. So many aspects of being a Black woman in the South are portrayed. These are women who have no problem at all revealing their deepest fears and thoughts and encouraging those around them to learn how to do the same.
RM: We find many times that the woman is the head of the family, carrying the burden of raising the children, keeping the ship afloat. This is because thirty percent of the Black male population is in prison in this country or moving in and out of jail…For instance, what does it mean to be a woman in a household where there’s no male figure? What does it mean to a child, a boy, when the father figure is lacking? What does it mean to be a Black person in a certain socio-economic condition? That has everything to do with class and of course there’s next to no mobility between the classes in America. It’s a continuum of situations and stories within the film as it is in society.
PC: The rhetoric at the heart of this film centers on the ongoing genocide of anentire culture. What, if anything, does all this have to do with your decision to shoot in black and white? Why is the film leached of color and how did you and your cinematographer Diego Romero discuss this?
RM: When you move from one story to another, the attachment to the story would have changed if we had used color, the degree of attachment or the empathy one might feel. It would change. Beauty and ugliness affect audiences. Why didn’t I want that? It’s because color and the beauty of color is a white European concept. It is our cultural take on beauty, which has nothing to do with the Black experience and that’s why I absolutely didn’t want this hierarchy of beauty placed within the film, based on something that comes from white Europe. For all of these reasons we discussed, we felt that shooting in black and white was the right choice.
Khalik Allah is an African-American of Jamaican-Iranian descent. He’s best known for Antonyms of Beauty and Field Niggas. Originally a still photographer, Cohn says Allah “felt he needed to expand these portraits of the indigent, homeless, drug-addicted, oft-arrested mostly African American men and women he encountered at three in the morning” on the streets of Harlem.
KA: The reason I ended up making Field Niggas is because I eventually became frustrated with the still image. I was hearing things and seeing things outside of the frame that weren’t being transmitted through the photographs…While I’m part Jamaican by ancestry, I’m also American, born and raised in New York. But as a matter of fact, when Trump got elected, I got my Jamaican citizenship just in case I need an exit strategy. [Laughs.]
PC: Your audio recordings become a tapestry of stories and voices. This is the baseline of your narrative. What’s that process like?
KA: I feel with the audio work I’m doing, I’m building a new film language for my content. The audio is the scaffolding I use to hang the images on. The audio is the space, and the images are the pictures I hang in that space as you would in a gallery.
Shengze Zhu talks about her close-quarter experiences living and working in Wuhan (home of Coronavirus). In Another Year, Cohn said she filmed “thirteen dinners with a Chinese migrant worker’s family: husband, wife, three kids and a grandmother, all of them living together in one small room.” But perhaps the more interesting film is her subsequent film Present.Perfect, which captures the Chinese “live streaming craze,” Cohn says, “she weaves together footage that was self-recorded and simultaneously broadcast by everyday Chinese citizens who have joined the deluge of live-streaming anchors in China.” American self-isolation by Zoom sessions — in your face!
In Section 2, “Sonic Truth: Visioning with Sound,” Cohn converses with Deborah Stratman, Michael Robinson, Gürcan Keltek, Dónal Foreman, four artists who feature sonic innovation as part of their production. Cohn says that they are “makers in a constant state of inquiry as they build landscapes with audio-visual montages that exist between the spaces of physical environment and human imagination.” Audio is oft-overlooked value added to a film (sometimes it is the value of a film).
Of Deborah Stratman, Cohn says, she “displays great mastery at subtly interpreting the subconscious frequencies and amplitudes that give shape to our common experiences, illuminating the viewer through her distinctive representations of systems of power, control, and belief.” Stratman is probably most well-known for her 15-minute film, Hacked Circuit, which explores sound as environment. The maker tells Cohn, “Sound is all around us in a 360-degree way. We rely on it to cue us as to what kind of physical environment we’re in…When you’re listening you’re in the middle of sound, so you’re deeply connected to the here and now.”
Cohn talks with Michael Robinson, who was lured into filmmaking by watching David Lynch’s work (who didn’t want to become a filmmaker after watching Eraserhead?). Cohn admires Robinson’s celebration of “seers, prophets…empaths,
psychics, visionaries and mystics [which] pays homage to…different states of consciousness” and offers up resistance to “the banality of the media we ingest.” Cohn expresses special admiration for The General Returns From One Place to Another (2006) and its use of textual collage and pop music as subterfuge in a lucid dream that verges on, in my opinion, on the Uncanny, and maybe even horror.
And so it goes. In the sections, “Border Crossings” and “Power Plays: Disruption,” Cohn’s conversations take a more explicit dip into the murky waters of political transgression. Crossing lines and crossed lines. Cohn points out that “In nonfiction and experimental filmmaking circles the word “borders” is uttered almost constantly,” and in Lucid Dreaming, “the topic of crossing or encountering hard geopolitical as well as sociopolitical borders comes up as well.” Can filmmaking be an act of political disruption? Cohn wonders with makers from Syria, Philippines, Brazil and America.
Cohn introduces us to Spanish filmmaker Chico Pereira, whose film Donkeyote “weaves together fragments of memory, dreams, and metaphysics, as well as a good dose of illusion,” and “beautifully illustrates the way a life can be shaped and reconfigured by intrepidly putting one foot in front of the other in stubborn forward momentum, even through the most inhospitable of landscapes.” Kaltrina Krasniqi, from Kosovo, discusses her Oral Project, which recalls Studs Terkel. Krasniqi tells Cohn that she is “trying to create this massive photographic archive of the city.” American maker Brett Story’s The Hottest August, is available on PBS’s Independent Lens series. “What I want to explore,” she tells Cohn, “is how and why we are living with this notion that there is no future.”
In distinct contrast to the notion that the end is nigh are Cohn’s closing sections on personal identity. In “Notes from the Interior,” filmmaker Maga Borg documents futurist Jacque Fresco’s work designing and building The Venus Project in Future My Love. Re-making Mother Earth. But it’s in Cohn’s introduction to this section that we can understand the power of personal transformation that making provides:
The four artists in this section—Ognjen Glavonic, Maja Borg, Maryam Tafakory, and Samira Elagoz—use their own bodies to craft first-person accounts. Women, being the looked-at or gazed-upon objects since time immemorial—or else rendered completely invisible—have had to learn to objectify, then re-subjectify, and finally write ourselves into existence on our own terms.
Camera, ergo sum? Lucid dreaming, aware that I’m dreaming as I dream.
And it all seems to come together, in Cohn’s final section, “The Embodied Camera.” It’s a description Cohn borrowed from a university course in film production. She elaborates in her introduction,
I love a breathing camera where through the slight rise and fall of the framed image, it’s palpable that the person operating the camera and the apparatus itself have cohered, becoming the very manifestation of Vertov’s kino-eye—the observer-participant.
And there we are, back to Vertov and the woman with a camera,the transformation is complete.
Existence precedes essence, some wise old Gauloisses smoker once said, question marks curling from his ciggy. And we are, most of the time, just two metaphors talking. All in all, Lucid Dreaming will help you become aware, hopefully not for the first time, that you are dreaming a lot of the time, and that you are a camera among cameras, moving from obscura to réveil-ation. Just do it.
Note: Cohn has provided an extensive filmography of each maker’s oeuvre at the OR Books site. Most of the works referenced here were available at YouTube, either fully or as trailers. The usual suspect provider also offered up: Amazon, for instance.
This article first appeared in Counterpunch magazine on May 8, 2020.