Cape Breton Pastoral

Filmmaker Jem Cohen’s beautiful ode to Nova Scotia, We Have An Anchor

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Last winter, two rock musicians, a composer, and a filmmaker holed themselves up in an oceanside cabin in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Their mission was to render a snowstorm in guitar chords and drumbeats.

The filmmaker was New York–based Jem Cohen, who is known on the art house circuit as an urban auteur and photographer. His documentary work typically explores street life and the homogenization of civic spaces. He had visited Nova Scotia numerous times during the prior decade, and filmed a series of quiet, breathtaking moments while he was there. Cape Breton in particular had astonished him.

“Beneath this beauty, there is a good deal of isolation and fierce independence,” Cohen says. The project, he explains, became “kind of a collage, and kind of a ramble—because that’s the kind of thing I like to do.”

In Wreck Cove, Cohen needed a soundscape to help turn his ramble into something meaningful. The musicians were punk rocker Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and drummer Jim White of Dirty Three; the composer was T. Griffin of the Quavers. “I want a deep, internal ocean-heartbeat rhythm,” Cohen told the trio.

The ultimate result is We Have An Anchor, a stirring montage of Cape Breton’s history, folklore, and literature, presented through multiple projections of 16 mm and HD footage. The film’s score captures what Cohen perceived as Nova Scotia’s regional quality, pulling from Cape Breton traditions, with Scottish and Irish music at its heart (Nova Scotia is, of course, Latin for New Scotland). For his part, White replicated the mute, bass tones of a bodhran—the traditional Irish drum comparable to an Iranian daf—on his kit, drawing from cross-fertilized Eastern and Western traditions. All three musicians retained their assorted amps and pedals, honouring their own punk/post-rock roots. The sound spectrum they created ranges from the hymnal to the heavy metal.

We Have An Anchor projects iconic images of the cape: a vast blue ocean and snow-covered fields are spliced with everyday moments—a running dog, a neglected mall, a crow. Cohen presents local fishermen and forgotten stories—like the fact that Marconi’s earliest transatlantic radio signals were transmitted from the landmass’s tip. His motive was to create a mirror, offering people a look at their own world—a world, he says, that has been pushed to the periphery by Hollywood’s flashier distractions.

Earlier this year, Picciotto, White, and Griffin, joined by members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, performed their score for We Have An Anchor at a screening of Cohen’s footage in upstate New York. The grand tradition of live music alongside projected images—a practice crucial to the Lumière Brothers’ 1890s films—returned in experimental form. It’s about to happen again, tonight and tomorrow in Toronto: We Have An Anchor is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinema 1, right next door to a James Bond extravaganza. The view from Cohen’s hotel room is a golden, forty-foot-tall Bond woman. It bothers him.

“When we are bombarded by people telling us that we should focus on the way things are not,” he says, “I attempt to pull things back down to earth, to the way things are.” A contemplative photomontage with a live soundtrack, We Have An Anchor is Cohen’s tribute to real life.

We Have An Anchor , an experimental film with live soundtrack, is screening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on December 4 and 5.

Farida Hussain
Farida Hussain is an online editorial intern at The Walrus.