Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found (Cohen, 1996) is a fascinating hybrid of documentary and fiction. Cohen crafts his story out of ‘real’, documentary footage, a process which leaves us to wonder, did he wrote the script first and shoot the footage to fit? Or did he shoot first, selecting visuals that interested him in some way, finding the story as it emerged from the images that he captured?
Cohen’s inventiveness seeps into the film’s narration too, which subtly fades in and out, making us strain to hear as the words as they recede; an audio version of the audience leaning to look round a corner even though they know (rationally) that they can’t move the camera.
There are links to my notes on pattern recognition in the narrator’s desire to understand the writings in the notebook. It seems to reflect a semi-fervorous belief in religion, magic and a higher power; that there must be some meaning in the apparent randomness that he sees. And his inability to identify the pattern in what he reads drives his increasingly obsessive pursuit of it.
But the film’s strongest message is the intrinsic value in every object (and every person). Cohen creates his story around a narrator who has become invisible to society, he isn’t considered ‘valuable’ enough to be acknowledged by most. But he discovers freedom in this invisibility, becoming aware of what was once invisible to him, seeing aspects of life that are hidden by and from the many.
The narrator falls into a parallel world of ignored and unvalued people, one which exists alongside the publicly presented version of the city that he lives in, an inverse of The Gernsback Continuum. In this alternate reality he meets a man who fishes up objects from the sewer, making money out of items that others have thrown away. In fishing up and selling these objects we see that everything has value, everything has meaning.
Cohen finishes the film with images of people staring straight into the camera. We’re never told who these people are, but we’re left to assume that they’re the ‘invisible’ people of the city, people whom society has deemed have no value. By juxtaposing these images with the narrator’s anecdote of the fisherman who finds value in the discarded object of others, Cohen questions the systemic prejudice that relegates them to the margins of society. He asks the audience to understand them as the narrator tries to understand the notebook. (And he has these ‘invisible’ people stare directly at the audience through the camera to force his point).
While researching Cohen and Lost Book Found, I came across an interesting interview, comparing Cohen to Chris Marker, and describing Cohen’s approach to filmmaking, “it is as if by looking sideways at places and their inhabitants – by focusing on the edges – Cohen approaches their essence” (Said, 2001).
Much like the Soviet montagists who attempted to make the abstract tangible in the concrete and the physical, it seems that Cohen sees the true essence of his city in those that are marginalised by it.
Cohen, J. (1996) Lost Book Found, Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eNBY4-cG18 [Accessed on 29 December 2015]
Gibson, W (1981) The Gernsback Continuum, Available from: http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng216/gernsback.pdf [Accessed on 29 December 2015]
Said, S. F., (2001) Do you recognise this scene?, The Daily Telegraph, Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4721388/Do-you-recognise-this-scene.html [Accessed on 30 December 2015]