Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"We are in Calvino territory, seeking out the invisible all around us." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

What do you notice when you move through urban spaces? Buildings, people, animals, fragments of conversation, items lost and discarded drifting like tumbleweed between the pavements and the lanes of endless traffic. Perhaps you don't have time. Perhaps, when you take leisurely walks, you prefer somewhere more conventionally pleasant. But if you've spent time drifting through city centres or riding through them in the back of a car or bus, you may have glimpsed some of the moments Jem Cohen presents in his new film. This patchwork of images, sometimes challenging, sometimes poignant, is there for you to dip in and out of - you can latch on to intriguing fragments or you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Split into 15 chapters, Counting flits back and forth across the world, taking in New York City, Ankara, Moscow and more. Filming was carried out over several years but this isn't immediately easy to discern. Indeed, we could be travelling though one continuous, timeless city, a dystopian version of Michael Moorcock's eternal Tanelorn or a Ballardian landscape with beauty hidden in its gutters, underpasses and soaring towers. In an early scene, a fragment of newspaper drifts into view, its headline proclaiming The World's Last Mysteries, and you might wonder if the world we have created is every bit as potent with obscure possibility as the one it has replaced. Then we are in Calvino territory, seeking out the invisible all around us.

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Cohen has never made any secret of his politics and some messages here are starkly delivered, as when we follow the homeless or watch people's reflections in their cellphones whilst listen to politicians talk about surveillance. Most of the film is more subtly delivered or wide open to interpretation, at least for viewers who pay attention to the power of editing and the way each fresh image is placed in context. The sameness of much of it invites us to let down our guard and at the same time feels like a hippie plea for togetherness re-envisioned in concrete and smog. But there elegance in Cohen's camerawork, and there's a lot of quiet humour. We rarely see a face for long enough to get much impression of anyone, but we hear enough to capture their sense of individuality as they move through endlessly entangled lives. Meanwhile, cats, pigeons and other animals find their own purposes for the spaces humans vainly think they own and understand.

By the end of Cohen's film, you will feel as f you've just driven back within sight of your home after a long time on the road; you'll be able to taste the petrol in the air and feel the faint twinge of a low level carbon monoxide headache; and even if yo weren't consciously paying attention at all, you may feel curiously as if you have accomplished something.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2015
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Counting packshot
Fifteen distinct but interconnected chapters, shot in locations from Russia to New York City to Istanbul. Together, these build to a reckoning at the intersection of city symphony, diary, and essay film.

Director: Jem Cohen

Year: 2015

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: US


SSFF 2015
BIFF 2015

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