First Take: João Dumans on the short films of Jem Cohen

For many years, Belo Horizonte was known as a city that had a strong affection for experimental cinema and video art. Coming from the small village of Ouro Preto in 2002, I had no idea what that exactly meant. But we used to hear a lot about experimental films. We also heard about a particularly mythic film festival that occurred in the early 90s in Belo Horizonte, when an American filmmaker named Jem Cohen came to show his films, and how great that was. We heard stories about Fugazi being there as well, and about love affairs between someone from the band and one of our future teachers at the university. I heard about those stories and, suddenly, Belo Horizonte — a city where nothing happens — seemed like the coolest place to be during this time, even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I was thus genuinely excited when, in 2005, some friends announced they would bring a selection of Jem Cohen’s films to play at the Belo Horizonte Short Film Festival. And even though I had great expectations, I was not prepared for what I saw or, more precisely, the atmosphere that was would emerge during the screening. It was late, and you could feel that people in the room were tired, as I myself was. But instead of making the experience of watching them more difficult, this semi-sleeping atmosphere produced a magic effect, and images and sounds started resonating not as something that was coming from a machine, but from our own inner thoughts and feelings.

It all started with Black Hole Radio, followed by the beautiful Drink Deep. When the screening reached its peak with Just Hold Still, the limits between feelings and images got even more blurred, and I could not tell anymore “what” I was seeing. Were these pieces of images part of the same film, or were they separate things? When does that last piece end or start? Am I dreaming? If not, where are those strange voices and prophecies coming from? And then there was This is a History of New York, where I could finally recognize my own city and my own time, in its desolation and poverty, and I started slowly coming back to reality.

Other aspects of the films would later come to mind. But after the magic of the screening was gone, the spirit of freedom and independence of their making was the thing that marked me the most. Last year, when showing Araby in Vienna – Affonso likes to say it is our Lost Book Found – we finally had the chance to meet Cohen in person. And we were like two ridiculous teenagers meeting their idol. Later that evening, I was going to a meeting at the festival when I saw him walking alone in the streets, with his camera and his backpack, working. And I thought to myself that if the whole cinema industry breaks down, with its festivals and cocktails and everything else, Cohen and a few others like him will keep going, because they have nothing to do with it. Seeing him there, I felt happy and honored to have seen his films.

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João Dumans, along with Affonso Uchôa, co-directed the acclaimed Brazilian film Araby, which opens in theaters on June 22, 2018. More information is available here.

First Takes: short essays on transformative viewing experiences. Read more entries.

 

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