Life Underground filmmaker Hervé Cohen travels to more than a dozen cities looking for the most powerful stories from commuters.
The silence inside a subway car can be deafening as riders fixate their gaze on their phones, out the window, into blank space—on basically anything but their fellow passengers. Small talk isn’t always welcomed (even if some urban dwellers are secretly begging for some kind of “genuine connection”).
Yet the underground transit system is where strangers from more than a dozen cities opened up to the filmmaker Hervé Cohen with stories about family, relationships, fears, and goals. Most stories, he tells CityLab, are evoked through simple questions like Where are you coming from? or What was your last dream? In Berlin’s U-Bahn, a young Syrian refugee dreams of his parents, who he no longer sees. In the New York subway, a jazz musician revealed his struggle to find a sense of belonging in the Big Apple. And in Brussels’s metro, an elderly woman recounted her relationship with an American soldier during World War II.
It’s all part of Cohen’s latest project, Life Underground, which features “living portraits” of commuters worldwide. The interactive documentary, set to come out in May, won’t immediately head to the big screens. Instead, the interviews will be gradually released on an interactive map that allows viewers to pick and choose which interviews to watch. (Preview some of his videos online.)
Cohen may have conceived the idea years ago, but the message within the project resonates now more than ever. “A city is a crossroads where most of the people come from somewhere else, whether it's a little village in the country or from another country [altogether],” he says. “One of the goals is to make people realize that we are all humans, that we have common grounds.”
When CityLab caught up with him, Cohen was preparing for his trip to Tokyo. He’s already traveled to 10 other cities, from his hometown of San Francisco to Montreal and New York, to Vienna, Athens, Hong Kong, and Santiago. Here’s our conversation:
How did this project begin?
I had this dream project that I kept writing about without having shot anything. So one day I said to myself, I need to really go underground and approach people. Thankfully, the first country I visited was Brazil, to São Paulo and Rio. It gave me a boost because over there, people are so open and approachable and even excited to talk.
After that, I went to Paris and San Fransisco, where I live, and also Athens. Wherever I was traveling to for work, I would bring my camera and put aside a few hours or days, and I produced a few videos that helped [attract] partners. Last June was really when we started with funds, permits, and the UITP—an organization for public transportation worldwide—as a key partner.
How do you decide who to talk to?
It's really hard to explain. I'm not looking for the super good-looking people, or the super trendy. It could be somebody with a bouquet of flower, like “where is this person going with it,” or it could be someone who has a suit on. I filmed in New York someone who was struggling with a table, and [it made me wonder], what's the story behind that? Sometimes people's expressions grab my attention, when I see them thinking hard, or really concentrated on their thoughts.
Why did you choose the subway as the setting? Do you think you would have gotten the same results in an open public space?
In New York, for example, the world is there. The whole city takes the subway, rich, poor, religious, nonreligious.
Filming in the subway allows me to take time to look at people, at their expression. There is a special internal atmosphere, with the tunnel lights and the noise and soundscape. You can just let go and think and be in your internal world. I used to read a lot on the subway, but I don't do it anymore. It's good to have a time off, to pause and to maybe have your thoughts go wild. That might also put you in the mood of introspection, and to be more open to one's feeling and thoughts. And with the time I had to film people, to [keep the camera] on their faces, it’s like a living portrait. There's really nowhere else I could do that.
What were some of the topics that came up in your travels? How did they differ from city to city?
That was a key element of the project. Just talking to people, in two days, I can get an idea of what's the sensitivity and mood of a place, and take the pulse of the city.
In both Hong Kong and Shenzhen, so many conversations were about parents’ and children's relationship. About how to pay back their parents, how to not disappoint them. It was such a big worry for the young generation.
Athens is really interesting because of all the anxiety. There was no communication, and we would see people with their heads down. I remember this woman, maybe in her 60s, she had a beautiful hairdo, super distinguished and classy. She told us about how she used to be beautician, and then she retired. But because her three children were out of work, she had to take a job as a realtor. I always ask people what they had dreamt about at night, and she told me, “I really don't remember my dreams because I am so tired at the end of the day that I really fall deep into my sleep.”
Sometimes they're all on their mobile phone, especially in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. They're really into their phones and it's harder to break the bubble.
But in Santiago, Chile, oh my goodness. I had to stop asking people if they wanted to be part of the project, because they kept saying yes. And in four days, I had 16 people, and that was more than enough. People there look at each other. When there is music, they clap and even dance.
People are often said to be a bit aloof during their commutes. Efforts to get riders to talk with one another often meet resistance. How do you get people to open up to you?
I work with film students, and that's maybe the trick. I work with really young and enthusiastic people who love the project, and in the countries where I don't speak the language I ask my assistant to approach the people. We ask to film them silently during their travel until they exit the subway, and afterwards, we would record them telling something about [themselves]. That's the pitch.
I think people need to talk. The questions, “where are you coming from?” and “where are you going?” might be very simple, but they often open to a story of a life. In Santiago, I was filming the city lights through the glass door [inside] a metro, and all of the sudden, through the reflection, I see a very melancholic young woman. She said, “I'm coming from a place where I saw my four-year-old son, with whom I don't live. I couldn't live with him, so every now and then I go and see him because I have to work. I was so young when I had this baby, so I could not afford to raise him.” From that point, she told us about her story and the fact that she was herself abandoned by her mother at an early age. From that little question, we could develop an amazing heartbreaking family story. That was one of the most powerful moments.
Did you get rejected often?
Of course! It's not easy. I was in Vienna a few days ago, it was difficult, especially old people. They wouldn't let us approach them. In New York, a plan of attack was to have somebody who was super good looking with me. [Laughs] It was funny because the first day I filmed in New York, I kept asking people and everybody was saying no. That was after my trip to Brazil, the country where everybody would say yes. All of a sudden, a guy looks at us and said, “You can film me if you want.”
And he was from Brazil—of course. That was one the best [interviews]. He's a jazz musician in New York, and his narration was really beautiful.
What was a particularly memorable story that you think resonates with the issues of today?
I wanted to have immigrant stories—people from the Middle East, or Turkey, but it was very difficult to have them open up. When we would talk to them, though, it was just so beautiful to see their faces light up. One of the most beautiful stories that I got was in Berlin, from a Syrian refugee. He was a nice young man, good-looking, and something drew me to him. He couldn’t speak German.
I asked him where he was from, and he said [the Arabic word for] Syria. He couldn't say Syria in English. I couldn't imagine that he would tell the story that he told: Barely 18 and coming all the way from Syria, and crossing all these borders by himself. He was with a friend who spoke German, so when we did the interview, we had him reply in Arabic, the friend would translate from Arabic to German, and then my assistant would translate from German to English. [Each time] the translators would take just a moment to breathe, to swallow, before translating. I would grab the meaning of all of it, and I had some tears in my eyes.
What do you want people to walk away with?
The first [feedback is often] from people who work with me, who live in the cities. Many times after a shoot, they send me a note: “Now I look at people differently, I feel like talking to them.” I'm so glad when I hear that. It's a way for them to have a more human approach to their neighbors, and to people sitting next to them. We have stories, and we share more than we think, in every culture and every city. When we look at someone, we can go beyond their gaze.