August 17, 2020

Pamela Cohn's 'Lucid Dreaming' Offers Inspiration and Insight for Nonfiction Storytellers

From Mila Turajlic The Other Side of Everything. Courtesy of OR Books

The joy of human-to-human dialogue about the creative process is the heart of Pamela Cohn’s book, Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers. Cohn, whose lengthy list of nonfiction film accomplishments span writing, commentary, curation and filmmaking itself, used her own archive of filmmaker interviews, as well as new conversations, to assemble an eclectic collection of voices from across the global documentary landscape. While most of the independent artists featured may not be top-of-mind filmmakers in the industry (working largely, as Cohn notes, “in virtual obscurity”), all have achieved significant recognition for their creative work. Indeed, the interviews contained within this 280-page book reveal a deep commitment among the artists featured to expanding the nonfiction form, whether for political engagement, intimate reflection, artistic possibility or other meaningful pursuits.

Cover image of Pamela Cohn’s Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers. Courtesy of OR BooksThe collection opens with a conversation with the late filmmaker and activist Barbara Hammer, a re-publication of one of the first entries posted to Cohn’s blog, Still in Motion. The conversation sets the tone for Lucid Dreaming, revealing Cohn’s delightfully honest and inquisitive approach to the lives and work of the filmmakers with whom she speaks. Cohn humbly describes her method as “full of grappling, spontaneity, improvisation, and the concomitant awkwardness and intimacy one experiences when you’re talking about deep and weighty matters with a virtual stranger.” Yet her clear courage to converse freely and without pretention allows her to unearth candid insights into the beauty and struggles of the creative impulse.

Lucid Dreaming is loosely structured into seven sections, two of which are described below. Each section offers an investigation into the cultures, countries, histories and identities that inform many of the best nonfiction works emerging today. Indeed, a true strength of the book is that Cohn spotlights artists—both established voices and newer ones—from around the world. She brings filmmakers into intentional global conversation with one another—in her words, to “complement, offset and challenge” each other. In so doing, the collection offers a rare window into the craft of independent nonfiction and the lives of artists working under very different personal and political conditions.

This is perhaps best demonstrated in Cohn’s conversations themed “Memory & Magic: Inter-dimensionality,” in which she speaks with filmmakers using distinctive approaches, styles and subjects to connect their common project of accessing their “interior pathways in order to overwrite entrenched histories of ‘the way things have always been.’” For example, Terrance Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty offers an investigation of the human experience of emotions “when they’re spinning out of control,” mapping memories of love and the evolution of personal relationships at key moments over a lifetime. Sky Hopinka’s work (Around the Edge of Encircling Lake, Jáaji Approximately, Dislocation Blues, among other projects discussed with Cohn) juxtaposes indigenous histories that have been “written and re-written, remembered, misremembered, and then forgotten” with personal memories rooted in language, family and place. Ja’Tovia Gary experiments with archival material to “re-frame and re-tell modern historical incidents from a Black perspective.” For Gary, “the archive is not objective nor is it neutral space” and its “gaps, deliberate erasures and ruptures” offer the possibility of bringing a personal, political and contemporary meaning and relevance to the images she unearths. Personal reflection on the legacies of race, culture and identity formation also figure strongly in Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlic’s work (The Other Side of Everything and Cinema Komunisto).

From Sky Hopinka’s Dislocation Blues. Courtesy of OR Books

Other sections of the book offer specific insight into the more technical elements of craft. In “Sonic Truth: Visioning with Sound,” Cohn speaks with four artists, each of whom uses “sonic resonances in his or her film and video work, meticulously building soundscapes to accompany visuals almost as an architect might.” The section opens with a legacy conversation with Deborah Stratman, in which she discusses her latest film, Hacked Circuit. Made in a Foley studio in the back streets of Burbank outside of Los Angeles, the film explores “violations of privacy by political powers,” probing the “power inherent in the various illusions and conflations of our perceptions of sight and sound.” In her musings with Cohn, Stratman discusses the operation of sound in film as both subversive and as a “mode of social control,” explaining how she used sound to sculpt physical and cognitive space to test the limits of trust with her audience.

Similar themes are echoed in the conversations that follow. The films of Turkish filmmaker Gürcan Keltek use sound to intentionally disorient and unsettle. Keltek discusses his use of sonic material from “all different kinds of objects and places,” such as NASA recordings of meteors entering the stratosphere, rhythmic drumming on Chinese woks, and a field recording of public grief following the death of a young boy, for example. These elements help to build complex soundscapes in his recent films such as Meteors and Gulyabani. Cohn also speaks with filmmaker Dónal Foreman, whose film The Image You Missed was made using the archive of his late father, filmmaker Arthur MacCaig. In the film, Foreman uses sonic material to create “a vivid orchestral landscape” comprised of “interference, static noise, ghostly voices layered atop the other, and carefully curated musical selections… .” Cohn’s conversation with Michael Robinson illuminates plainly the trial and error of working with sound. Robinson considers the possibilities of using sound as a “guiding force” for audiences, explaining how it can help viewers process the “more open-ended imagery” one might find in experimental works of nonfiction.

The remaining sections of Lucid Dreaming explore themes such as home environments, technology and the embodied camera, borders (understood broadly to encompass geopolitical divisions as well as genre and aesthetics), political disruption in artmaking and gender. Every page of this book brings to life the motivations, influences, collaborations and animated personalities of some of the most original artists working with the nonfiction form today.

Indeed, many of the films discussed in Lucid Dreaming challenge conventions in documentary storytelling in one way or another, making this book essential reading for anyone interested in new perspectives, techniques, and/or the possibility of using art to generate social impact.


Sandra Ignagni is a documentary filmmaker and holds a PhD in feminist political economy. Her latest film Highway to Heaven was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

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