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We Have an Anchor: not a movie, and not a concert

Artist and filmmaker Jem Cohen’s newest film project is a documentary-based, interdisciplinary hybrid built from footage he gathered in Nova Scotia over the past decade.

Copper waves beat against shadowy rock. An oversized wagon wheel looms over a barren shore. A black dog runs across a snowy field. In a thicket of the Nova Scotia woods, an isolated house collapses slowly into the soil, one season into the next, its roof sliding off the frame, shingles standing up like hairs on the back of a tingling neck.

These pictures follow one by one and side by side, in multiple frames across the screen. Historical artifacts and texts are juxtaposed with footage shot over a decade's worth of yearly visits to Cape Breton. And as the images tumble, a live band of electric guitars, pump organs, violins and drums punctuates their flux with harmonic whispers and roars.

It's often said that live performance saved the music industry: Though online availability has devalued recordings, people still flock to witness the artist in action, whether it's Justin Bieber or a cult band on its first tour. Now, with viewers often catching movies on phones and pads and laptops, one filmmaker is gambling that live music can also help restore some of cinema's vitality.

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"It's not a movie, and it's not a concert," says New York-based independent director Jem Cohen about We Have an Anchor, a sonic and visual installation and performance being co-presented in Toronto on Tuesday and Wednesday by the TIFF and Images festivals. "It's something that I think of as meeting in the air between those two, in that room that night, at that moment."

In his nearly three decades making films, Cohen has been best known for working with musicians, including videos for bands such as R.E.M., a doc about politicized punk band Fugazi and Benjamin Smoke, a portrait of a flamboyantly doomed cabaret-rock performer in Atlanta.

With We Have an Anchor, then, he has enlisted an indie supergroup to play a score in real time, from bands such as Fugazi, the Dirty Three and Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor as well as, for this week's version only, Toronto's own elusive singing legend Mary Margaret O'Hara (who co-starred in Cohen's recent fiction feature Museum Hours).

One potential effect is to restore the sense of a film as a distinct occasion, one that can't be reduced to a digital loop in a multiplex or on your XBox.

"It harkens back to the early cinema, which was almost never actually silent – there was usually live music," Cohen says. "I very much was influenced by thinking about Abel Gance's Napoleon in 1927, which was this completely radical leap into multiple projection" – its premiere at the Paris Opera featured three screens and a live orchestra.

As Gance did in his often-overlooked historical epic, Cohen is using the whole available arsenal of filmmaking for We Have an Anchor, from the hand-held Bolex used to shoot the images to the high-definition digital technology of the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema.

It becomes "a celebration, but also an elegy for film – the stuff which is really going away right now," he says.

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In this sense, it is reminiscent of Christian Marclay's internationally acclaimed cinematic installation The Clock, a 24-hour-long montage of movie clips synced precisely to the time in the real world. Both Marclay and Cohen are foregrounding the fact that film is a time-based medium, "inherently," as Cohen says, "about breaking time up into a different kind of building material."

He hopes his work can "let people sit and let something creep over them. … It's why people like to stare at the ocean, stare out the window, stare into fireplaces. Those are things they can have in the cinema that they are generally deprived of."

You can fairly ask whether such experiments have anything to offer back to the mainstream: They are by their very nature somewhat exclusive, expensive and rare. But in recalling the camera's capacity to act as a time machine, or the breathing presence of piano, organ or violin players who were once standard fare in "silent" movie houses, these artists ironically might awaken us to alternate futures for the medium.

"Sometimes," says Cohen, our distracted, sound-and-image-bite culture needs to be shown how to "go full bore with this other possibility, which is a real enveloping, where you have to give full attention and let yourself get carried away."

These questions of the history embedded or lost within the present also resonate with We Have an Anchor's source material – an immersion in Cape Breton's natural beauty that gradually expanded "beyond the postcard" to include Nova Scotia's legacy of economic instability and political estrangement.

"Any landscape really has a kind of layering of culture," Cohen says. "A factory that was once there and then disappeared, or something that sank in the ocean. There's always a kind of secret history to a place."

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Cohen researched everything from the geological shift that broke Nova Scotia from the British Isles to the far-reaching roots of Cape Breton's famed music. The Anchor ensemble includes not only fiddles but drums whose forms can be traced to Asian traders who once crossed paths with Celts, and a sort of antique organ popular in pre-Second World War Cape Breton – "people don't realize there was a whole period where they're ordering these little organs from their Sears catalogues, with this spooky, wonderful sound."

The band is "not playing traditional music but bringing the ghost back of what was part of that time."

In We Have an Anchor, every element stands on this edge between what's present and what's absent. In this way, it echoes previous films Cohen has made, which revisited locations in New York City over decades, or mixed a fictional narrative with global footage of strip malls and stark parking lots: They share a haunted sense of place and an improbable hope of salvage.

"There's a degree to which that imbues all my work," he says, "but realistically it's what imbues all photography: You're making a record, and in a way you're preserving something, and in a way you're kidding yourself, because it's all ephemera. But I'm certainly thankful for that ephemera."

After all, you never know when an era, or an art form, may flicker out, or what spark might bring it back to light.

We Have an Anchor plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., tickets $30-$50. Further information at

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