REVIEW: We Have An Anchor, by Jem Cohen. Barbican Centre, London, 31/03/2015

©2015 Stefania Ianne – All rights reserved. Twitter @stillarte

What an evening at the Barbican tonight. Unusual is the word. It is the European debut of Jem Cohen’s latest feature film. A movie screening with a twist. The feature film is in an unusual format for mainstream film-making, not unusual for Jem Cohen, decades of challenging productions under his belt. There is no plot, all we know is that the film is about Nova Scotia, in detail about Cape Breton, one of the most isolated and economically deprived places in Canada. The twist is that the soundtrack will be performed live on stage tonight, just like they used to do during the old days with the piano player in the darkness trying to infuse sense in the silent images rushing and flickering on screen. Only in this modern-day not-so-silent movie to perform live on stage, still in the semi-darkness, we have a bunch of amazing musicians of the international underground scene. Starting from the left, I can see the unmistakable silhouette of Jim White, the elegant, unconventional drummer of Dirty Three. Next to him, the next silhouette in the semi-circle, I can see Guy Picciotto. There you have one of the two voices and guitars of Fugazi. Does the name Fugazi mean anything to you? Fugazi made musical history. Next up T. Griffin from The Quavers, mainly on bass but starting on the organ. The voice of Mira Billotte is positioned at the centre, she also starts the performance with her graceful, declamatory singing style. The right side of the stage is populated by three musicians from Thee Silver Mt. Zion/Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau face the screen with their violins, while Efrim Manuel Menuck completes the semi-circle with his guitar, again unmistakable with his full head of long curly hair. The musicians reach their position in the semi-darkness, not one word is spoken. The screening starts, enveloping the auditorium with an unusual three-screen projection. The effect is distracting. I find my eyes wondering from left to right missing any existing link between the projections and losing my concentration. The pictures are mainly black and white; colours hit us mainly when the sea becomes the protagonist. The sparse stories of the inhabitants of this close-knit community are simple and extreme at the same time. We get sound-bites telling ordinary stories of life and death as told by the people that were born and bred in this desolate place and never left it. At times, we get the story of those people that have chosen desolation. All appear mesmerised by the place. The extreme beauty of the deeply wild Canadian landscape comes across in bits and pieces. In various interviews, the director declared that the film is a montage of different pieces of reality shot by himself during a decade of short stays in Cape Breton. This collage of sequences witnesses and conveys the slow decay of an abandoned place, a location that offers no life to the young and ambitious. A place claimed back by nature and populated by deeply primeval feelings and vibes. The fascination of decay and extreme weather does not escape a few artists who choose to live in this desolate country. Some contribute their stories to the film.  Others are inexorably included in the narrative through the words of their poetry; for example Don Domanski’s Fata Morgana and Elisabeth Bishop’s Cape Breton. The beauty of the words is extreme, but the rendition disappointing since they are just subtitles scrolling onscreen. I was hoping that poems would be read live this evening, or at least I was hoping that they would be part of the soundtrack in the voices of authors where possible. The idea of the subtitles comes across as an afterthought: they fail to capture the imagination of the audience. I can see a few puzzled faces among my fellow audience members. I can see a few Fugazi t-shirts, possibly failing to see the connection with their idol.

The musicians are mainly waiting in silence for their moment, their contribution. Most of the soundtrack sounds improvised on the spot, but from time to time the guitars take the lead and take over driven by the thickly layered drumming of Mr Smith, while the violins howl in the background and Mira Billotte tries to keep the feeble connection with the local folklore with her soft drumming of Gaelic drums. There are a couple of beautiful musical moments while the pictures of emotionally charged weatherscapes flicker on screen, but the musical score is mainly underplayed, unobtrusive, true to Mr Cohen’s wishes  according to which “music should not guide emotions”. I paraphrase his tirade against the damage done by MTV. Somehow, though, the presence of these amazing versatile musicians on stage feels wasted tonight. Or maybe I was just expecting more. The music and the pictures fade away on screen. Jem Cohen himself makes a brief, shy appearance on stage in his signature cap. He hugs the musicians, while Menuck slinks away in the background. A nod to the audience and all is done. Everybody leaves the auditorium in silence, politely. No traditional narrative, no majestic emotions tonight. The overall mood is gloomy. The night is still young in London…

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