In Counting, observation is transformed into a set of questions, ethical and aesthetic, political and practical.
"And I also wanted to make a film that by its own form questions the ways that documentary, even as it gains currency in the culture, is increasingly boxed in and expected to hew to formulas."
-- Jem Cohen
"Duane Reade". The orange neon name splits the movie screen, a pharmacy below and black sky above, with a squad of gym members on treadmills above, maybe ten or 11 runners stretched across the screen in continual, pulsing motion, going nowhere. The shot is mesmerizing, banal, passing, pressed together with street noise, a muddle of sounds mechanical and indistinguishable.
The shot lasts a few seconds. It appears in a section of Counting, Jem Cohen's gorgeous meditation on time and place. The section, called "The Blues", offers brief moments in London, Moscow, and New Jersey, 2012. Before Duane Reade, you see other signage, flyers glued to blue walls, asking whether the NSA killed JFK and MLK, and then a Daily News headline announcing a "Creeping Menace". After Duane Reade, a plane flies across a sky streaked with clouds and then a patch of pavement, scratched with the words, "Trump is a monster." In 2012.
Time and place.
Counting pulls together pieces of stories, arranging them so you make sense of them, so you create stories even as you reflect on them. The film -- which screened on 11 April at the Doc Yard, where it was followed by a Skype Q&A with Cohen and film journalist Erin Trahan -- observes patterns and behaviors, offers images and ideas that you might in turn rearrange. At once immediate and fragmented, ongoing and intricately connected, the movie's many stories intersect and swerve off, seduce with incredible light and exquisite composition, and reveal your responsibility in the process. Its 15 sections form networks across cities including St. Petersburg, Istanbul, New York, and Sharjah, streets where taxis and backhoes and pedestrians coexist.
As different as the locations might be, they also rhyme. As compositions, they share colors and angles, gestures and shadows, movie references and subway bands. Whether the camera looks down on sidewalks or up at buildings, makes use of doorframes and windows, paintings and mirrors, travels on trains and waits on subway platforms, whether it lingers on cemeteries, Putin and Stalin impersonators or cats (an homage to Chris Marker, who died while Cohen was working on the film), it complicates the very act of looking, the choices you make each moment, to watch or turn away, to pause or move on.
That's not to say the movie doesn't frame those choices. Watching New Yorkers on a sidewalk through a storefront window, you notice that most of them are on their phones. This mundane activity, so beautifully composed to suggest multiple sorts of reflection and fragmentation, is reshaped when the soundtrack adds the Senate Intelligence Committee's Ron Wyden asking, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all, on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Comes the answer, now so notorious, from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence in 2013: "Not wittingly."
As striking as that phrase was and remains, and as pedantic as the film's use of it may be, the sound here doesn’t so much change what you're seeing as it offers you another way to think about it. Yes, you might wonder who's watching you on or through your phone, or why you might worry about that possibility. But you also might ponder your own part in a culture premised on self-policing, on cautions and redactions. In Counting, observation is transformed into a set of questions, ethical and aesthetic, political and practical. What's at stake for whom in recording and reproducing, in accumulating data, in making art?
Just so, counting is also a choice, a means of discovering and communicating and naming. "Where you from?" Cohen asks a guy in a wool cap, standing on a snowy sidewalk. "Right here," he says, "I'm from the Bronx." And so you realize, again, that "right here" can be anywhere, depending on the time, depending on who's asking. The film collects moments in museums and kitchens, at construction sites and at street protests ("I can't breathe"). "I walked in a city I didn't know," reads an intertitle, as the black screen cuts to a group of boys with backpacks, in front of the Madras Grocery, smiling and gesturing at the camera, then a series of images, tree roots growing over concrete and plastic detritus, life expanding, past and future entwined, a tree that serves as shelter for the homeless.
You don't know who might live here, but you can imagine. The film offers this unlikely structure alongside more deliberate versions, mosques and shops and apartment buildings. Observing is a form of consuming, recording an effort to order, editing an act of imposition and also, as you come to recognize in this film's many allusions, an attempt to expand possibilities. As you might think again about what you know and remember, what you anticipate and want, you can see here -- right here -- where you are and can be.