Q&A: Filmmaker Jem Cohen on Chris Marker

STF Artistic Director Thom Powers in conversation with filmmaker Jem Cohen (MUSEUM HOURS) following the screening of Marker's SANS SOLEIL. ©Ruth Somalo

This post was written by STF blogger Krystal Grow.

We are invited into SANS SOLEIL by the icy and congenial voice of an imaginary narrator, the only source of stability in Chris Marker‘s legendary 1983 anti-documentary which opened the 2014 Stranger Than Fiction series at the IFC Center on May 6.

An abstract travelogue punctuated by dense, poetic descriptions and lush, vibrant imagery, Marker floats through his frames with an intentional dissonance that feels both reckless and precise. Regarded as a master editor in the days before Final Cut and non-linear editing, Marker bends and twists the documentary form in a way that never claims to know the truth about anything, and questions the very nature of history, memory and reality.

The film takes massive leaps on all fronts, intellectually, technologically, aesthetically and psychologically, but at a pace that’s almost hypnotic. The female voice with the cold British accent becomes soothing to a point where Marker’s imagery starts to look like a surrealist National Geographic special, complete with viscous wildlife footage and pointed socio-cultural observations.

SANS SOLEIL is Marker’s most widely seen film, and has left an indelible impression on the cult community that’s grown around his work. Filmmaker Jem Cohen, director of MUSEUM HOURS and BENJAMIN SMOKE said he first saw the film when a group of Australian friends forced him to watch the movie soon after he arrived in the country.

“I always experience a kind of jet-lagged reverie every time I see it. ,” Cohen told STF Artistic Director Thom Powers during the Q&A session that followed the screening. “That feels appropriate,” Powers responded, as the audience slowly emerged from their Sunless-inflicted trance. “I feel like everybody needs a pause because it feels so ridiculous to do anything after seeing this film, because it’s so dense and marvelous,” Cohen said.

Even to fans like Cohen, SANS SOLEIL is essentially unknowable, a factor that Cohen said actually contributed to his love of the film. “I’m delighted to think about how utterly indescribable and unpitchable it is,” he said. “I feel like we’re in a time where documentaries are forced into situations where they have to be pitched and you’re supposed to have a one sentence line you can throw to some money person in an elevator. You cannot do that with this movie.”

Good films thrive on mystery, but Marker takes that to an almost profound level, using the conventions of documentary filmmaking to tell what could be a completely fabricated story, and by using the classic vehicle of voice-over narration to establish structure in an intentionally unstructured world. Marker takes us to places that could be familiar, but makes us question our own memories in the process of following him on his journey. We eventually come full circle, to the image that opened the film. The narrator, dictating a fictional traveler’s letters, calls it ‘the happiest image in the world.’ All the audience sees are three blonde children, staring skeptically at the camera and pondering its purpose. A fitting end to a film that defies easy answers, and demands a total dismissal of everything you thought was true about documentary filmmaking.

“It’s a film that works like memory and it works like life, so the density is to me, an appropriate function of something that is meant to feel like the way that we think, the way we remember, the way that we look and the way we experience the world,” Cohen said. “Maybe that’s dumbing down, or maybe that is just what it is.”

Full Q&A

Thom Powers: Chris Marker passed away in the late ‘90s and left behind a vast filmography that covers all kinds of topics and genres. He was also a writer that always seemed to be interested in upcoming technologies. I understand late in his life he was very interested in Second Life, the virtual reality game. Jem, Can you talk about talk about when you first encountered Marker’s work and what it meant to you?

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Stranger Than Fiction, the weekly documentary film series hosted by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and presented by IFC Center, begins on Tuesday with a retrospective screening of SANS SOLEIL (May 6), Chris Marker’s 1983 masterpiece. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum names it one of the key nonfiction films of our time and describes it as “a film about subjectivity, death, photography, social custom, and consciousness itself.” The screening will be accompanied by a conversation with filmmaker Jem Cohen, who cites Marker as a key influence on his own work. This presentation coincides with a month-long retrospective “Chris Marker & His Legacy” on Sundance NOW Doc Club, also curated by Powers.

The season bring many new films from STF alum to the IFC Center. Joe Berlinger‘s WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (May 13) follows the trial of the infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, using the courtroom action as a springboard to examine accusations of multi-faceted corruption within our nation’s law enforcement and legal systems. Acclaimed documentarian, Doug Block, has supported his career over the last two decades with a side business of videotaping weddings. In 112 WEDDINGS (June 3), he tracks down and interviews the more memorable of his 112 wedding couples. Marina Zenovich‘s ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (June 17) revisits the key players involved Polanski’s controversial and complex sexual abuse conviction.

9-MAN (May 20) gives a glimpse into Chinese-American community through an athletic game that has been played exclusively Chinatowns across America since the 1930s. THE FRONT MAN (Thurs, May 29) is a non-fiction rock ‘n roll comedy love story about an everyman middle-class musician burdened by the desire for stardom.

The spring season closes with a special Wednesday screening of THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP (Wed, June 25), director David L. Lewis’ portrait of Nat Hentoff, a pioneer in music criticism, who has spent more than six decades championing jazz in the pages of the Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, Down Beat, and numerous other publications. A New York story, the film won the DOC NYC Metropolis Grand Jury Prize in 2013.

The STF spring/summer season will take place weekly at the IFC Center for the next eight weeks. All screenings are Tuesday night at 8:00 pm, besides the special Thursday, May 29 screening of THE FRONT MAN, and the Wednesday, June 25 screening of THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP. Each event includes a discussion with the filmmakers, followed by a gathering at a nearby bar. The STF titles for May 27 and June 10 will be announced shortly.

Tickets are available for individual shows or season passes can be bought for $99 for 9 films.

With a season pass, you receive many perks including a free DVD from Docurama; free popcorn at every STF show; assurance that you never miss a sold out show (as long as you arrive by 15 min. prior); and the ability to transfer your pass to a friend, if you can’t come.

Click here to buy the Spring/Summer Season Pass.