By John Kendall Hawkins
“And the day came / when the risk / to remain tight / in a bud / was more painful / than the risk / it took / to blossom.”
– Anaïs Nin, “Risk”
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire, stirring / dull roots with spring rain.”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
Lucid dreaming means to be aware that you are dreaming while doing so. Probably we’ve all had these kinds of dreams. Therapies have been built around lucid dreaming. Books have been written, sometimes equating it to an outer-body-experience inside the mind, and websites have popped up, including Lucidity.com. Philosophers have weighed in. As Nietzsche once said, in Human, All Too Human, “Misunderstanding of the dream. In the ages of crude primeval culture man believed that in dreams he got to know another real world; here is the origin of all metaphysics. Without the dream one would have found no occasion for a division of the world.”
But that’s not what Pamela Cohn’s on about in Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers. Not exactly. Cohn is more interested in a parallel hyper-seeing — waking up into your life and using a camera to help you do it, producing a cinematic experience, and reframing your way of thinking along the way. The 29 filmmakers Cohn interviews come from all parts of the world — Asia, Europe and the Americas — and their filmmaking covers the usual panoply of social issues, including immigration, race, gender issues, economics, surveillance state, selfhood, and the phenomenological use of the camera. Cohn writes, “My hope is that the effect of disparate personalities gathered together in one volume evokes an expansive and global conversation, not merely a series of dialogues strung together.”
The filmmakers journey away from the dulling Hollywood tropes and themes that filmmaking legend Dziga Vertov once referred to as “the new opium of the people,” and venture towards unchartered territory and a new language that shows rather than tells, such as what Vertov largely achieved in Man With A Camera. And that’s what Cohn sees these filmmakers doing: “Ultimately – and not to sound too precious about it – one of my overriding hopes for the compilation was that it would be a book of inspiration with a multivalent approach – for other artists, certainly, or anyone wanting to take the ‘risk of blossoming.’”
One illustrative example of the power to express a transformative experience by means of filmmaking may be seen in Michael Robinson’s short film, The General Returns from One Place to Another. The film presents a disturbed space inhabited by dream-seeing human-oids, representative of early David Lynch films, where a unspeaking character looks almost into the lens — as if the viewer is sensed, until an uncanny connection is made that sticks with you; pop music fading in and out, along with popping sounds (fireworks? thunder?) that elicit a wistfulness that doubles in the viewer’s mind (at least mine). Here is the video:
I interviewed Pamela Cohn recently about her conversations with the 29 filmmakers. Here is an edited transcript of our ‘conversation.’
Did you see or sense something similar to what I did in Michael Robinson’s The General Returns?
Robinson admits that there were almost extra-sensory signifiers going on for him when he made that video but like much of his work (he’s a prolific collage artist as well), he had unwittingly gathered all the elements that would make it work for him in terms of the dream logic he uses to craft story. As you’ve read in the book, David Lynch is a huge influence for Michael. From the longer version of the conversation I had with him – some of which appears in the book but was edited down quite a bit for space issues: “I wanted the darkness and damnation of the text to build against what felt like an increasingly floral or beautiful background though the images are sort of dark and mechanical too. The weight of that damnation collapses the text and then you have to reckon with how the various parts continue. I wanted this tug-of-war between beautiful image and ominous sound and the text to finally collapse…That helped me a bit with Onward Lossless Follows because like with The General, I sat down to make it with all these various pieces I had gathered and a pretty troubled heart to try to figure out what was going on. It, too, fell into place in a way that seemed like it knew more about me than I knew about myself.” So a lot of this is mysterious for the artist as well and that’s why his work is so timeless and ineffable, detached from any kind of thesis or strict discipline of logical thought.
One definition of Lucid Dreaming is simply ‘being aware that you are dreaming’ as a kind of stem reality you can grow stuff from. Can you elaborate on the concept and how it applies to your filmmakers?
These works are about action – memory as action, vision and writing as action. And unending sources of faith in one’s voice and vision. In the dream state, there are signposts – mysterious and sometimes uncanny – that cannot easily be directly defined. Allowing oneself to practice the discipline of dreaming while awake is something that takes most of us a lifetime to interpret, to process. For artists, it doesn’t stop at the process; it transforms into the slipstream of the physical world, which is more surreal than one’s dream state could ever hope to be. There’s an open conduit in that liminal space where dream state and interpretation and action swirl around one another. Ever since coming across the term lucid dreaming – a state where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming – it’s always stuck in my mind as the perfect term to describe the cinema experience.
The kinds of experiments filmmakers in Lucid Dreaming are trying out seem so ambitious.
It is ambitious – and so often misunderstood. To attach the moniker of “experimental” to any project is also ambitious – and risky. But what these makers are adept at is creating narrative parallels to what most human beings go through, asking deeper questions about who we are, what our relationships and responsibilities are to ourselves and to one another, and using dialogues between image and sound that create an impressionistic and poetic cinema, creating resonances that can stimulate the mind and heart of the viewer rather than dictate to it or explain complex thoughts in a tiresome and didactic way. It is a time for questioning, a time for seeking, a time for reflection, and a time for deeper connectivity. It is the hardest thing to achieve but so necessary, now more than ever.
Roberto Minervini’s work with Black southern women feels like something of a mix of Studs Terkel’s oral history project and the southern and Caribbean explorations of Zora Neale Hurston. Do they have the same focus? Are their angles the same?
Studs Terkel was first and foremost a cultural anthropologist, in my opinion, and on the surface, you could say Minervini is working within a similar discipline. However, what is vital to Minervini, first and foremost, are the relationships he develops with his protagonists – the individuals he is asking to “re-enact” their lives for his camera – most of whom he’s known for a long time as friends. He considers them full collaborators in this endeavor and uses the camera as a conduit of sorts for emotional reverberations to fly back and forth. He is drawn, as well, to the underbelly of society and wants to shine a light on people who are often cast adrift or live on the margins, individuals with very little opportunity to be seen, heard, and counted, and whom we rarely see represented in mainstream media.
How would you describe the genre or genres described in Lucid Dreaming? Multi-plexual? Phenomenological kitsch? Or some new event in cinema?
The makers in the book tend to generally create their own style or “genre” in the ways in which they put together their work: fiction/non-fiction/memoir/(auto) biography – steeped in documentary practice. Some, we can say, work in genre-free zones with the understanding that they endeavor to use image and sound as a painter uses color, texture and shape, attempting to lay down on a blank flat canvas complex emotions, experiences, sensations, and stories/myths. The book exists so that I could give makers a platform to talk about the complexities of that and the high level of difficulty involved in communicating this way.
Your section on “Visioning with Sound” was interesting, because we often go to the mainstream cinema believing we are interacting with visual narrative almost exclusively, and we can forget how essential audio is to the storytelling. Music cues us on how to respond, sound effects help us to interpret.
Yes, most makers admit that their soundscapes are there, in essence, to manipulate the viewer emotionally. It is a form of control that makers such as Deborah Stratman, Michael Robinson, Gürcan Keltek, and Dónal Foreman can discuss so articulately. All agree that sound is powerful and these makers work very hard to master those effects for maximum emotional impact. I agree completely that in much mainstream fare – documentaries sometimes being the worst offenders – music especially is used profligately and irresponsibly – and annoyingly. Meaning the more bombastic the soundtrack or soundscape, the more suspicious I am of what I’m being shown.
What are your reflections on the aesthetic or practical differences between black-and-white and color? Gürcan Keltek answers this partially in your book with: “I used to work in the film development industry and all the things I used to work with related to getting these highly polished, clean, pristine color images. It started to make me kind of sick. The presentation of beauty in the industry and how people deal with those images made me feel that there’s something inaccurate built into how we perceive things, in general.”
I have been shooting black and white photography for the last 20 years. I, too, think that there is a possibility for purer storytelling but there’s a big difference between looking at it as merely de-saturating or leaching color from something versus using duotone to express a desire to focus on other things that are going on in the frame. But as Gürcan also states, there are makers who choose to work in black and white in a quite pretentious way, with no real rhyme or reason as to why they’re doing it except that it maybe looks more “arty”, or something superficial like that. I wanted to include this discussion in the book because it’s a vital and profound decision and each maker has his or her own personal and artistic reasons for working in black and white – see also Minervini, Maja Borg, etc.
Maja Borg’s documentary on the Venus Project, Future My Love (2012), opens up a new form of filmmaking, one oriented toward realistic practical visions of the future, new paradigms, for which there are concrete models. Can we document the future this way?
While Maja’s project does talk about utopian visions of the future, what’s at the heart of her film with Fresco are their Socratic dialogues about how they cope with the world’s shortcomings (in Fresco’s case) and a more personal exploration into shortcomings in interpersonal, intimate relationships, something that Maja explores in all of her work using her own corpus, her own point of view, and her own story. They found kindred spirits in one another, challenged one another, and learned from one another. Fresco ended up deeply appreciating what Maja made, although it was very far from what he’d expected. This kind of project really shows the fruits of an expansive, charismatic, and exploratory relationship between two brilliant minds – the film is the physical manifestation of what proved to be a profound relationship of respect and love.
Can independent or experimental filmmaking be an act of political disruption on a large enough scale to be meaningful or is it more an inspiration for would-be disrupters?
I don’t really think so. The art world is rarely that powerful and the people most impacted naturally flock to art and art making not so much to disrupt, but to perhaps start the thought process or the spiritual process that happens internally to each one of us when we encounter work that shakes up our senses, exposes new modes of being in the world. But film in and of itself can’t disrupt much of anything. Going back to Moore, I just feel his bid at disruption is misplaced because it’s so superficial and there for entertainment value mostly. When something is entertaining, it is our natural propensity to sort of turn off our discerning, critical brain and that’s not very useful when you’re trying to convince people to look at something in a new way.
Has being a judge of filmmaking altered or affected your approach as a filmmaker?
Yes I could say that it has. It’s certainly made me more discerning and because I’ve seen such diverse work over the years, it’s enabled me to develop an aesthetic and trust my own taste as to what I think is worth sharing with others – and what’s not, meaning it’s a completely subjective exercise. In terms of actual filmmaking, I would have to say I’ve made the same mistakes and taken the same missteps as anyone might do in attempting to transform something from my mind, to the page, to the screen. All I know is that the level of difficulty is very high, sometimes seemingly nigh impossible.
Who wants to watch short, independent, and/or experimental filmmakers anyway? And where can you watch them?
Those that crave, seek out and appreciate this kind of work can find it quite easily. Most of these makers self-produce and therefore have their own extensive websites. In this time of the corona pandemic, many makers are releasing select works for free or opening up their Vimeo pages or posting on YouTube. There is an extensive Filmography section guide for every maker in Lucid Dreaming at OR Books. Contacting the maker in many cases is very possible for they are the sole owners of their works and happy to be invited to share it.
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.