Jem Cohen’s excellent We Have An Anchor (“neither a film nor a concert, but a ‘meeting in the air’ between the two”) traces the American film maker’s annual trips to the Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton. It is a work concerned with transition, a region disconnected both physically and existentially, reconstructed by Cohen in “fragments of film, sound, and digital images” he collected over a decade.
“Other places,” Cohen explains in the film’s literature, “are not just other geographies, they are other experiences of time.” Nothing could be truer of Cape Breton. Following an opening montage of otherworldly repetitions of dense, rolling seascapes (rendered immaculately on a grainy stock affording the images a tight pointillist quality), Cohen boards a ferry from the mainland, shrouded in darkness and snow flecked, the only point of liminality in the film and a return trip to what is effectively the end of the world. (For locals, the mainland is simply “away”.)
What follows is a series of intertwined vignettes, poems and testimonials, in which the filmmaker himself is only a fleeting player. Roads and tides sweep skywards to horizons, blurring out in a monochromatic fug. Whales breach and drift through the sad, painterly ocean. The aforementioned theme of death is ever-present in the film’s images and the stories of its populace – dead birds, endless graves and clatterboard churches, Cape Breton’s decrepit industries, the spectral remains of a collapsing house eventually swallowed by foliage, a murdered dog and the close-shave anecdotes of a crabbing boy.
We Have An Anchor’s most affective moment is also the one largely empty of visual action. A monochrome split screen depicts a freezing sea, tidal foam ebbing around a boulder on the shore; simultaneously, a dog runs through a snow-covered meadow. It’s austere, banal even, but fragile and life-affirming, soundtracked by a blistering swell of dense, magisterial orchestral rock – just what you’d expect from a live group including members of A Silver Mt Zion, Dirty Three, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto.