Joseph Roth wrote in 1933 that rising nationalism had temporarily defeated Jewish writers in Germany, but not before they’d given its literature something great: the theme of the city. He’s one of a number of literary figures (along with his German-Jewish contemporary Walter Benjamin) associated in the modern imagination with the flâneur, the urban explorer who reads significance in details on the streets. I was by chance coming to the end of What I Saw, a collection of observational essays on Berlin public life the Austrian writer penned for newspapers in the brief, precarious Weimar years, when the invitation came to cover IndieLisboa. The timing was serendipitous, given this year’s edition screened a retrospective of filmmaker Jem Cohen as one of two honoured “Independent Heroes” (Paul Vecchiali was the other). Cohen is a book-obsessed roamer intellectually descended from these early flâneurs, who looks to cities passed through to reveal secrets from their vantage points as if written on their stones like a text. They all put great stock in chance constellations, ordering their work not by narrative so much as inventories and tapestries of images and intense moments, knowing the whole world is holistically contained in them. Future memory is captured with visceral immediacy.

The festival screened 14 of Cohen’s films, from his 1996 short Lost Book Found, shot over five years on the streets of New York and tinged with mystical suggestiveness by entries in a discovered notebook, to feature-length meditations on place and its transience, such as 2015’s mental map through global stopovers, Counting. They are films both radically solitary and richly associative; that signal out toward other inner worlds and the layers of words, music and images that have nourished them, adding anew to the weave.

Jem Cohen Retrospective

Lost Book Found is explicitly dedicated to Benjamin, who wrote that to not find one’s way in a city requires only ignorance but to lose oneself is a psychic state that requires something more – an affinity with its signs and passers-by so that they speak to the wanderer. The film arose from the time Cohen spent, pushed by economic necessity, as a pushcart snack vendor on one of New York’s busiest avenues, where he could observe people and was himself largely unnoticed. “As I became invisible, I began to see things that had once been invisible to me,” says the narrator. A man who fishes up items that have been lost down subway gratings lends him a book with strange listings, and from this he senses a magic to the detritus of the world, and wonders whether there is an order connecting all things: “Sometimes it seems as if the city is the rubble of stories and memories, layers and layers, and that objects, all of the remnants of things, are the city’s skin. Many are the remnants of commerce.”

IndieLisboa 2017

Lost Book Found

I didn’t meet Cohen in my few days in Lisbon but I thought, two decades on from Lost Book Found, he would have had much to say about the particular ways in which remnants and commerce converge in this Old World capital. Perhaps almost too picturesque for its own good, it is now being aggressively transformed by touristic gentrification, a fate regarded by its locals with quiet horror. Along with Berlin and Cohen’s New York, it’s also a city that’s been shot through with the romantic melancholy of the ‘30s flâneur’s eyes. Fernando Pessoa’s tour de force of metaphysical accounting The Book of Disquiet, was published posthumously after his death in 1935. It’s couched as a “random autobiography” of “factless impressions”, written by an assistant bookkeeper in a notebook he leaves to another regular of the cheap restaurant above a tavern he eats at every night – a near-stranger made a comrade by the fact he also writes.  This kind of solitary anonymity is embraced in Cohen’s films as the freedom to access some mystery; to be at home nowhere but everywhere with the time and whim to drift and look.

Essayistic feature Counting rejects the ordering tyranny of chronology, instead arranging its snapshots of cities (from New York to Moscow, London and Istanbul) into 15 chapters by more intuitive rhythms of memory resonance. In-between sequences looking downward from a plane window, or out from the rain-streaked glass of a train, frame this cinema of seeing and noticing amid modern life’s constant transience and movement. The contested, politicised nature of place and its aggressive remoulding by capitalistic powers is alluded to often, from citizens in Istanbul’s Taksim Square protesting against the encroachment of a new shopping mall to a couple in their St Petersburg apartment recalling the communal kitchen they had shared under a different system. To be an individual does not mean to turn one’s back on society for Cohen, but to think apart from the mass, resist market forces and follow one’s own truth.

I was startled and moved when Counting suddenly took me back to a place I knew: VDNKh, the sprawling Moscow park and exhibition centre that was once a showcase for Soviet industry under Stalin before capitalism transformed it into a fairground and market. I used to go there the odd weekend with friends in 2003 when I lived in the city, sometimes during heavy snowfall, amid Russians enjoying family leisure time, and other foreigners impressed by the bonkers scale and kitsch glory of it all. No place since has ever so encapsulated for me the thrill of the new and the intoxicating delirium of strangeness that infuses the best city exploration, so for me it’s a place drenched in nostalgia – not least because I hear it no longer exists in the same form, having had its trashy weirdness stripped by gentrification into a more classy, tasteful version of itself where dilapidation has been blitzed by renovation and where hipster professionals now like to attend art shows. But, shot by Cohen in 2012, it was all still there: the Cosmonautics museum and stuffed dog Strelka (who made it back from space), the life-size copy of the Vostok rocket that stands in the grounds pointing up toward space, and the giant ferris wheel I recall creaked so much health and safety fears were ignited. Cohen’s films live by such personal echoes of significance and the gentle melancholy that accompanies the fleeting; shimmering moments that rejoin the world back up for you.

IndieLisboa 2017

Museum Hours

Unlike Counting, Museum Hours (2012) does frame its time-passing in a foreign land with a fictional narrative. Cult singer Mary Margaret O’Hara plays a woman just as enigmatic as her off-screen persona. Anne flies from Montreal to Vienna to be at the bedside of a cousin she’s not seen for years, who is in a coma and lacks closer kin. Unable to communicate with her and with few funds to entertain herself, she passes much of her time outside the hospital in the quiet, dimmed interior of the Kunsthistorisches Museum looking at paintings. There she strikes up a conversation with museum guard and former roadie Johann (Bobby Sommer), who becomes her platonic companion and guide to discovering little-known corners. “It felt good to see my city anew – to go there for no other reason than to show it to someone else,” he says. Hanging over all of this is imminent death. The waiting game tied to a relative who is a veritable stranger raises all sorts of thoughts about transience, what is left after we drift apart, and what lies inside sparks of unexpected connection. Even if the film could be said to start with a meet cute, the relationship that subtly and tenderly grows from this eschews the illusory end-point of certainty of conventional screen romance. It exquisitely underscores instead the fleeting fragility of connections within eternal change and loneliness, and the fact that all we really have are moments – the startling beauty of which might just be enough. It says much of Cohen’s open outlook that Sommer is not a professional actor but was a driver at the Viennale when the director met him by chance, wanting to work with him because he liked his voice and was interested by his history of odd jobs and life experience.

In its wanderings of near-strangers and their curiosity about all sighted, Museum Hours is very much a Cohen film, and a film of flâneurs. Within its quietness and unhurried passing of time, the layers of impressions and ideas to be mused on connect and spark in all directions. Paintings themselves are given much attention, and in particular the work of Bruegel, who decentralised and dispersed attention in his artworks around a teeming mass of equally weighted detail. Just as a discarded playing card or broken egg may be noticed within his canvases, so Cohen may capture a cigarette butt, a lost glove or a book in a rainy market in the frame in a way that provokes an association. In a globalised world of urban movement where people are often like ships passing in the night, images imprinted like memory traces may connect us back to lost points, just as art from eras past anchors us to our ancestors.

Anne sings while looking out her window in the blue light of dawn a song about parting and seeing in darkness, lending another layer of oblique poetry to this stream of impressions. Museum Hours has Patti Smith and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto attached as executive producers, reflecting the ethos of punk and DIY independence by which Cohen navigates against form’s mainstream standardisation, and which informs his collaborations. Music has always been a very prominent part of his work. Lucky Three, Cohen’s 11-minute portrait of singer Elliott Smith made twenty years ago, intercuts acoustic versions of some of his songs (including “Miss Misery” played at a kitchen table) with scenes of the singer hanging out around Portland, standing in puddly industrial yards or smoking, and the inevitable sequences of city driving. This creates an intimate, lo-fi and melancholy video-style drift of impressions of the kind of character that Cohen is drawn to: a sensitive tuning fork with no talent or will for complacent conformity. Watching this short now brings home that a lot of Cohen’s work in its obsession with keepsakes and almost fetishised memory deals with the ghosts of the future.

Karl Marx City

The city is also a keeper of secrets and spectres in German director Petra Epperlein’s highly personal documentary investigation, Karl Marx City. But instead of a place to lose oneself it is a prison in which one cannot hide, its windows and walls enablers of the all-seeing eye of the GDR’s ruthlessly invasive surveillance state. Petra returns to the former industrial hub where she grew up, renamed from Karl Marx City back to Chemnitz since the fall of the Wall, in search of answers explaining her father’s 1999 suicide. Had he been an informant, one of the city’s intricate web of 200,000 enlisted snitches, or was his despair linked to other factors?

IndieLisboa 2017

Karl Marx City

Carrying a boom mic as she searches for answers, Petra is keen to be overt about her intentions in a town marked by a legacy of deception, and the emotional rawness of her mission is sincere and palpable. In discussing the Stasi (East Germany’s secret police) and its system, the well-known controversy over Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives Of Others is brought up; the objection that, unlike its portrayal, not a single Stasi officer ever saved a person he was surveilling. The conception here is of totality; of a system so oppressive nothing is outside it. “They weren’t just observed by the apparatus, they were the apparatus,” we are told of citizens embedded into a control web through a million small complicities, who internalised its functions. In a place like that, the free wandering of the flâneur for pleasure seems a luxury from another planet – indeed, the naming of a Škoda car’s colour “Sahara sand” is recalled as “some special cruelty”, because it envisaged an exotic location no regular citizen in the east could ever go.

Was it always so dramatically, so cinematically dreadful? Her mother recalls that it was not – if one (we read between the lines) turned a blind eye to the systematic disintegration of the lives of dissenters and “just lived their small life”. Beyond that wilful blindness, the narrator tells us there is now a special German word (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) for the struggle to come to terms with the past. A visit to the Stasi Records Agency in Berlin to find out whether her father has a file, and what could be inside, is a move by Petra to navigate her own family trauma through the extensive, cross-connected library of a wider national delirium, the note-taking pathologies of which remain as words and pictures stacked and labelled from floor to ceiling. When it comes to collective trauma, city exploration becomes a quest for transparency and commemoration.

Summer Lights

If there’s any director able to reignite the full emotional force of the historical moment encased in archived images and the collective memory, it’s French found-footage master Jean-Gabriel. Known for devastating, deeply humanist films that oppose politicised cruelty such as Eût-elle été criminelle (Even If She Had Been A Criminal…,, 2005) he was an honorary guest at last year’s IndieLisboa, and this year his new film Summer Lights screened. Like Cohen, he is a flexible talent adept at the innovative documentary essay and able to translate his thematic preoccupations into more conventional narrative form, as shown with this fiction feature debut.

Summer Lights is another film in which a visitor’s walk around a city deepens their understanding of the past, and the inseparable present. Akihiro (Hiroto Ogi) is a filmmaker who has flown into Hiroshima from Paris to make a documentary about the devastation wreaked on the city by the 1945 atomic bombing. An interview with an octogenarian about her memory of the attack and its impact (told in a powerful talking-head opening sequence) unsettles him deeply, and he retires to the park to process it. Here, a vibrantly charismatic and offbeat young woman (Akane Tatsukawa) in old-fashioned attire strikes up a conversation with him, and offers to show him around. The dawning revelation that she is a ghost embodying the city’s past may seem too on the nose, were it not for the charm and astute insights with which this plays out. The existential contradiction dramatised by the film is complex and essential: the more life reasserts itself irrepressibly, the more difficult stories of trauma are to take in and square with the current life of a city and its people. But it is exactly this history and its ashes that form the foundation for the present, and as such must not be forgotten.

I Pay for Your Story

Relating stories collected from others is a practice fraught with ethical problems surrounding questions of appropriation and exploitation for the documentarian, and with I Pay For Your Story director Lech Kowalski wears his recognition of this on his sleeve. He returns to his rust belt home city of Utica in New York, a former manufacturing centre where he grew up in a blue-collar neighbourhood in a family of Polish immigrants. Many there now are mired in economic desperation and a lack of hope for their futures. The once-familiar streets bring up memories of what is now long gone, but in determining what’s happened to Utica his mission is to cast the net wider than his own immediate roots.

IndieLisboa 2017

I Pay For Your Story

Kowalski walks the streets encouraging citizens to tell him their potted life stories, in return for cash. The film was highly divisive, with some affronted by the crudeness of this monetary exchange, but to me it highlighted the less overt forms of manipulation that directors more commonly disguise in other films, raising interesting questions about what kind of conduits we should consider them to be. Piled up one on top of another, these oral histories – told sometimes by individuals, and sometimes whole families facing the camera – create a vision of rampant unemployment, addiction and the diminishing options of a system weighted against social mobility and rehabilitation. Many subjects seem to find the experience cathartic; that Kowalski’s humanistic interest acknowledges the intrinsic worth of their existence in a manner commonly denied them by state institutions. This is far from poverty porn, as in its weave of so many similar struggles, it reveals an oppression that is systemic (the unpaid, tough physical labour in housing construction spoken of by a black former convict in a program for “second chance people”, for instance, underscores the stigma attached to jail time and the city’s cynical utilisation of ex-prisoner labour power). At moments, the film is a fascinating portrait of the city’s forgotten places: a legendary Jamaican club and weed spot from the ‘90s, dilapidated but still with disco ball hanging, is the setting for several interviews, and its story is told by a former regular (those who ran it were all deported in 2000).

Toward the end, Kowalski brings us into his own mother’s funeral. Was he striving to show himself emotionally naked enough, to balance his intrusions? Confessional oversharing, after all, often expects reciprocity, and we could see this as manipulation of our sympathies. Regardless, these stories were all welcome revelations, and did not rob the dignity of survival and endurance from their sellers.

Cities in Waiting

In What I Saw, Joseph Roth describes 1930s Berlin as “a young and unhappy city-in-waiting” with a fragmentary history. The cities in these films I’ve discussed, like all modern cities, are seen with profound ambivalence as sites of constant change and transformation, pain and regeneration; caught by the past even as they hurtle toward the future.

IndieLisboa Festival
3-14 May 2017
Festival website: http://indielisboa.com/en/

About The Author

Born in New Zealand and now living in Berlin, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic and journalist for London-based publications Sight & Sound, The Guardian, Screen International, The Calvert Journal and Estonian culture weekly Sirp. She is also part of the team launching independent cinema Wolf in Berlin.