At the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 16, filmmaker Jem Cohen (“Museum Hours”) joked that documentary is often called the bastard child of the dramatic narrative film, so the essay film, the city symphony film, and the diary film must therefore be the bastards of documentary. He described his most recent film, “Counting,” as a combination of those three.
Told in 15 chapters, “Counting” is an exploration of modern urban life. Finding beauty in the smallest of things, the film discovers and rediscovers the intricacies of the city. Each section varies drastically in length and is unique, powerful and impactful in its own right. The film travels through locations, not creating a linear narrative but rather forming a slideshow of moving images.
Cohen has kept a large archive of shoots throughout his career and over the past three years, he has accumulated footage from New York, Moscow and Istanbul. In “Counting” he combines these three locations to construct his film.
The shots are not complicated nor particularly difficult to achieve. Cohen shoots the city from the street, always on the go. He depicts what it feels like to be walking on the boardwalk in Coney Island or through the Red Square. Cohen gets his hands dirty showing the little things that make the city come alive. He shows trash stuck in place — slowly revealing that place is in a gigantic tangled tree and the tree is in a parking lot in Istanbul. Everyday objects become pieces of art. Description can’t do justice to the images Cohen has captured.
The film is beautiful and spacious. Cohen chooses not to make a clear and firm thesis so as to not dictate the viewer’s thoughts on the film as a whole. The film allows for the viewer to interpret it in their own way. Certain sections may speak to some viewers and other sections will speak to others. But this is part of the beauty of Cohen’s film — its openness allows for interpretation and study of urban life, modern life and the movie itself.
The clearest, and possibly most impactful, section of the film is “Three-Letter Words” in which Cohen photographs people moving through Manhattan with audio of leaders of the NSA testifying before Congress. This section is by far the most heavy-handed. However, this is not a bad quality in this instance. In a film where the viewer is able to wander, study images and interpret them how they like, it is refreshing to be given a clear cut message from the filmmaker.
Although the film is successful, it is no doubt difficult. Lasting nearly two hours with essentially no dialogue or narration, except text, it is not for those who bore easily. But it is the lack of these two things which allow the viewer to take the time to analyze and understand the images Cohen presents. “Counting” is a long exploration of the modern urban experience in an avant-garde yet accessible form.