March 21, 2019

'Life Underground': Hervé Cohen Explores Our Common Humanity in Urban Public Transit

From Herve Cohen's "Life Underground." Courtesy of Herve Cohen

In Life Underground, an ambitious interactive web documentary that received an IDA Documentary Award nomination for Best Short Form Series, filmmaker Hervé Cohen takes viewers on a global tour of urban public transportation—or rather, lets them choose their own adventure. Journeying through the subway systems of Taipei, Warsaw, Santiago and Los Angeles, among many others, Cohen explores the ties that bind human experience through his random conversations with commuters. What is most impressive is the range of topics he covers with people who are essentially strangers to him: love, migration, work, aging and dreams, to name a few. In each of the cities featured in Life Underground, individual ruminations are presented in short films that include distinctive architectural photography and a soundscape to capture the rhythm and melody of each place.  

Though Cohen initially conceived the project as a more conventional feature-length documentary, the constraints he encountered inspired creativity as Life Underground evolved into an interactive website and later, a multimedia installation. Documentary spoke with Cohen about his motivations, challenges and future aspirations for this unique project.

Tell me about your inspiration for this project—why did you make Life Underground?

HERVÉ COHEN: Life Underground emerged out of my curiosity about people. Being born and raised in France, and as a global traveler, I've always used the metro. On a train, you have a lot of time to look around at people and wonder. Who could this person be? Why are they carrying flowers? Who is she going to see? Or, you wonder about people's stories when they have anxiety on their face. I'm sensitive that way—curious—and wanted to engage with people and ask them questions. But, of course, [as a passenger] I would never do that! So I imagined a documentary in which I could move beyond my fantasy and actually talk to people. [This project has] changed my life—being able to use my intuition, reach out to people and follow my curiosity. In making this documentary, I've been able to explore our common humanity.

At any point did you imagine making a more traditional documentary? Why this interactive format?

Actually, yes. I had wanted to make this film for a very long time, and initially I had thought it might be a traditional documentary that would include a chorus of people whose stories would intersect around their commonalities. For example, a story might start in Santiago with one person and continue in Tokyo with someone else. This kind of film would be very difficult to produce. It would essentially need to be made in the edit, and for that reason it was hard to find funds for it because of the level of trust involved. But I was very stubborn and I didn't want to let the idea go. Then, when I was a resident at San Francisco Film Society, I brainstormed the idea of interactivity for the project, where the viewer could chose the passenger they wanted to listen to. In essence, this idea was closer to the actual experience of being in a subway; you look around at a number of people and maybe you are drawn to one in particular who you want to talk to. And the idea of making an interactive documentary seemed very fun and creative! So from being up against the wall, wanting to make a documentary without a traditional narrative structure—with a chorus of voices—this interactive idea was born. But even now, with this project, I still want to go back and make a traditional documentary. Only now I have the characters and the story I would need to make a feature-length documentary.

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience producing and financing an interactive documentary?

I started reaching out to organizations that promote public transportation. I wanted to, of course, make a film about humanity, and for these organizations, showing passengers in a humane light inherently promoted public transportation. There is an organization called the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), based in Brussels, and they unite all of the public transit systems around the world. We made an appointment with the General Secretary, and he agreed the project could help the world see public transportation in a different way—with humanity at the center. So he asked us how much we needed. We told him our goal was to document 15 subways around the world. He suggested we reach out to local transit authorities to seek their participation, since they might have a shared interest in the project. So we did, and we developed partnerships. We also had some seed money from the French Center for Cinema.

From there, things moved very fast. From June 2016 onwards we traveled to 15 countries in two-and-a-half years. This is a non-traditional way of funding a documentary, of course!

So your entryway into local systems of transit was through a partnership with UITP. But at the city level, in production, how did you secure the participation of commuters? I'm curious to know how long you spent with each participant and how you navigated issues of trust on such a short timeframe and in a public setting?

We were a team of two people. I was filming, and I had another person [who acted as an] assistant/translator/sound recordist with me.

I would look around at people and wait for inspiration, for someone who struck me as intriguing. We would then approach potential participants and explain the project and ask to film them—and most of the time, people were actually quite flattered! So we would ask to film each person in the subway, and then we'd request to interview them at a quiet location after the journey. That was a bit tricky. People would agree to be filmed on their journey but wouldn't necessarily have time for the interview afterwards. And, of course, sometimes people don't agree to be filmed at all.

We spent five days in each city, where we would film a minimum of 10 people. I think we averaged around 15 passengers per city.

For me, it was a miracle—each time. People would agree to be filmed and then they would agree to tell me something very personal about their life. How so? I can't get over it and I still don't understand it! That's the magic of the project—people wanted to talk. Maybe it was because they didn’t know me, or maybe it was because I'm a foreigner. It was a lot easier to talk to strangers in Los Angeles and Santiago than in Shenzhen or Vienna. But at the end of the day, even in those places where it was harder to find participants, we still heard very strong stories. People were deep and genuine about themselves.

Did you have a standard set of questions that were related to the final project's core themes, such as love, migration, etc., or were the conversations more organic, with the final themes that united the participants’ experiences chosen in post-production?

I had a few standard questions, but I used those only to begin the conversation. My first question, which seems really simple but actually opened to [one’s] philosophy and life story, was, Where are you coming from and where are you going to? These simple questions opened doors to strong stories. I'm reminded of a man I interviewed in Dusseldorf, who was coming from a church, where he had received 50 cents, and was on his way to another church, where he was going to eat breakfast. He was destitute, and yet his appearance didn't show it. That was one of the important lessons that emerged from this project—you look at someone and you might have prejudices or think someone is this or that, and then you discover something quite different.

When a viewer journeys through Life Underground, they’ll find stories about people's dreams. I'm very curious about people's dreams, so I would ask, Can you share a dream that you had recently and that you didn't forget? I loved listening to people's dreams. When people confide in you the dreams that they've had at night, they really open up. Sharing dreams opened doors to more intimate thoughts and stories—like the young man from Guatemala whom I interviewed in the Los Angeles subway, who had dreamt the night before I met him that he had been shot in the abdomen. People were running after him, he was shot and then he woke up. Then he immediately told his story about being a migrant with no papers, and he reflected on fatherhood.

So those were my two main questions, and, following that, I'd just try to figure out what [any given person] had on their mind, be it regrets about something that had happened in their life, or a hope. Often the conversations were very organic, but with these two questions as a starting point, we went a very long way.

From Herve Cohen's "Life Underground." Courtesy of Herve Cohen

What are some of the technical challenges of undertaking a project of this scope?

Starting in production, I used two cameras—a Sony A7SII, because it performs well in low light, and a DJI Osmo [stabilized], to use when we had to walk up or down stairs or escalators, or through corridors; it’s very smooth and stable. But the challenge was moving from one camera to the other, and to have them both ready. It took time to adjust between the two. And in post-production, my colorist had a lot of work to do to match the images from these two cameras.

Another challenge was time. Sometimes people did not have a lot of time, and with every participant, we needed to find a quiet place to do an interview. A few metros had rooms available—places workers could use to rest—so in those places, we had the opportunity to do the interviews in the station. But most of the time, as soon as we exited the metro with the participant, we had to rush to try to find a quiet place. It might sound ridiculous, but it was a constant worry: How were we going to record their voice and have the best sound possible? We used two microphones—a Sennheiser MKH50, which is excellent for voice, but also picks up a lot of ambient sound, whereas my second microphone, the Electro-Voice RE50B, could really isolate the voice, but the quality wasn't as good. So this was a challenge. In Life Underground, voice and picture are never working in sync, so the quality of the voice needed to be very strong so that the audience could feel emotion. When someone is about to cry, you can hear that in the tone of their voice, and I wanted to preserve that. My favorite locations [for conducting interviews] were public libraries—they’re always quiet. Other times we'd go to a hotel and use a meeting room. Worst case scenario, we’d be in the back room of a cafe, but that was always very stressful.

The project has been an enormous undertaking. In post-production, the challenges were for the Web designer and coder. I wanted the website translated into all of the languages that appear in the film. It was extremely important for me that anywhere I went, from Tokyo to Santiago to Stockholm, I wanted the project translated. Of course that raises financial challenges as well, because translations cost a lot of money. It was a huge undertaking, but I'm very proud of it—to have all of these languages represented, and to capture the sheer musicality of language.

Yes, languages are musical, and the soundtracks for each city are very impressive. Can you tell me about that?

I hear rhythm when I take subways, and I wanted the sound of each metro recorded and used as music in the documentary. I wanted to have a good sound recording of each place because I wanted the composer, Brian Rodvien, to use this raw recording and make music with it. After each shoot, I sent him my audio files—my recordings of the metros—for example, the noise of the wheels on the tracks, the sounds of the doors, and all of the other sounds that you hear in subways. Each metro is different. For each city he made one or more music tracks made from the rhythm and melody of the metro. That was our big goal—to create beauty from subways and to make music with the images and sound.

How did you put your interactive documentary out into the world?

We often asked ourselves, how are people going to know this exists? We released the documentary at SXSW in 2018, which was great for creating opportunities for publicity. We also had a partnership with a French television network, TV5Monde, which is received in 200 countries in the world. Though they didn't air the project, they are still the technical host for the webdoc and they promoted it on their website. Social media, of course, is very important for promotion. And the rest is just word of mouth. We learned recently that the documentary has been seen in 137 countries around the world! I was blown away. We did not promote it at that scale. So it's a mystery.

Another miracle!

Exactly. Another miracle. A series of miracles, when I looked at the list of countries, improbable countries, in every continent! So this is a great benefit of this kind of online work. You never know where it is going to go or who is going to watch it. I sometimes receive phone calls or emails and someone says, “Oh, we watched your documentary with communications students or politics students and they found it interesting!"

Life Underground is also an immersive installation. We launched it as an installation in Los Angeles last year because LA transit [LA County Metropolitan Transit Authority] was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Red Line. So they reached out to us; they wanted to show the work as part of the celebration. And I had been thinking about an installation for a long time. So when we received this offer, we decided to create an immersive installation on five screens, each 125-inch diagonal, with a very potent soundscape made up of voices, languages and original music. The installation was conceived with experience producer Tonian Irving. It worked amazingly well; the public could visit the installation for free. People spent time with it, feeling the chaos of the transit and listening to the stories. It was moving for me to see how people engaged with random passengers—their counterparts. So we found that the online documentary is interesting in its own way—it is playful and interactive—but the installation in the metro was also very interesting as a public and collective experience.

What are your goals or long-term plans for the project?

I have many. The first goal is to continue filming in places around the world that are underrepresented, or that aren't currently in our platform. In many countries in the world, the transit authority cannot give money to a project like this. In Buenos Aires, for example, they reached out to me and said that they really wanted to participate, but considering the financial crisis in Argentina, they really couldn’t afford it. Same thing with Dehli, and places in the Middle East. The cost per subway is very small but many cities would need to fundraise for it. I'd love to film in Cairo, and in cities in Central Asia and Mexico. My goal is really to expand the diversity—the representation of humanity—in the film. Ethiopia has a new rail system; I'd love to go there.

I feel that a project like that is very educational at a time when there is a lot of bigotry, intolerance and conflict in the world. I feel that this project is necessary to show that we have more in common with each other than what divides us. It’s been amazing for me to see that, everywhere in the world, people's stories resonate with one another—about aging, about parent/child relationships, about sexuality, for example. For me, it is really important that this project be seen right now, in America and all around the world.


Sandra Ignagni is a documentary filmmaker, holds a PhD in feminist political economy and works at IDA. Her next film, Highway to Heaven (NFB), will be released in 2019.