A rich and rewarding collection of seven short films by Brooklyn-based artist film-maker Jem Cohen, including the titular tribute to Walter Benjamin with Patti Smith, a portrait of Jean Vigo’s daughter, Luce, and a compelling immersion in Catania, Sicily.
Jem Cohen is one of cinema’s pre-eminent essay and diary makers. Working with renowned independent musicians such as Patti Smith and Vic Chesnutt, Cohen has made more than seventy works over three decades.
The Whitechapel Gallery presents six screenings in Cohen’s first UK retrospective film season with Barbican and Hackney Picturehouse.
Anne Truitt, Working / 2009 / 13 mins
A short portrait of artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004). The film consists of an interview and 16mm footage made in and around her studio at the Yaddo artist colony, as well as footage from her home studio in Washington D.C. Rather than an attempt to depict her art, which is in many respects un-photographable, the core of the film is found in Truitt speaking about the course and meaning of her work. Says Cohen, “I was honoured to know Anne Truitt, and doubly so when she allowed me to make a short record of her presence and thoughts. I felt as if she opened her hand and showed, in a profound but down to earth way, the compass by which she navigated.”
The Passage Clock / 2008 / 10 mins
An homage to Walter Benjamin and other time-travelling artists and expatriates that have inspired me, especially Chris Marker. Benjamin, fleeing from fascism in the 1930s, took refuge in Paris where Biblioteque National became his home away from home. In this library, a sanctuary made of books, he eventually left a secret copy of much of what remains of his Arcades Project, Das Passagen-Werk. Much of the narration for the film came from a chance operation or literary cut-up exercise done with Patti Smith, using dictionary definitions of the word “passage” which I later edited and augmented with text of my own.
Le Bled / 2009 / 13 mins
A collaboration with writer Luc Sante made in Tangier, Morocco, a city where neither of us had ever been. En route from the airport to the city centre, we found ourselves amazed by the landscape outside of the car windows; a massive construction project under way in all directions. While not in itself unusual, we were by struck dumb by the epic scale and seemingly incomprehensible plan of the development and were drawn to return together to this puzzling zone.
Crossing Paths with Luce Vigo / 2010 / 12 mins
A portrait of Luce Vigo, film critic, educator, and the daughter of pivotal French film-maker Jean Vigo. Commissioned by the Spanish documentary festival, Punto de Vista, the film incorporates Luce’s memories of her extraordinary life, reflections on her father, and images of Northern Spain.
Opus Luminis et Hominis / 2010 / 14 mins
A commissioned portrait of Pamplona, a small city in the North of Spain, shot and edited there in under 2 weeks. The film is a humble set of observations of place, people, atmospheres, and local rituals. (It is also a tribute to the art of film projection). As there is a large presence in the town of the conservative religious order, Opus Dei, which translates to ‘Work of God,’ I chose to name my film, Works of Light and Man.
Blessed Are the Dreams of Men / 2006 / 9 mins 30 secs
Moving towards an unknown destination, a group of anonymous passengers float through an unidentified landscape. Built from Cohen’s archive documenting his travels, the film can be seen as a curious parable. The film’s subheading refers to the Old Testament, Daniel chapter 11, verse 40: “And at the time of the end shall the king of the south push at him: and the king of the north shall come against him like a whirlwind with chariots, and with horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter into the countries, and shall overflow and pass over.” (Video Data Bank)
Blood Orange Sky / 1999 / 26 mins
A portrait of Catania, Sicily. Includes the ocean at 5 a.m., the fish market, the distributor of pornographic films, the woodworker, the elephant statue, housing projects, and a young girl in an orange sweater. Catania is a large and remarkable city without many tourists or tourist attractions. Its people live in the shadow of Mt. Aetna, an active volcano. Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse composed an original soundtrack for the project, which also contains music by local Catania musicians. This film/video was made at the invitation of the Sicilian arts group Officine. (Video Data Bank)