Skip to main content

Amber City

USA, 1999 (MIFF 2000, Citadel – Film & Video Exploring the City Limits)

Director: Jem Cohen

Cohen's beautifully composed documentary, Amber City, is dedicated to writer Primo Levi. It was shot in countless locations across an unknown city in Italy with a soundtrack by musicians including Blonde Redhead, All Scars, Sascha Pellegrini, Stephen Vitiello and others including Cohen himself. Amber City is a painterly, romantic view of an anonymous city full of evocative images of antiquated sculptures, bridges, museums, libraries and apartment blocks and post industrial supermarkets, shops, photo booths and construction sites: lingering images like Jim Jarmusch's long shots in Stranger than Paradise. Pixillated footage of electricity shooting across a street is juxtaposed with distorted images of people shot through lenses and mirrors imagery that is a testament of Cohen's love for an illusionary and kinetic cinema. Amber City is a catalogue of visual clues to the unsolved problem of the mystery of this nameless city. The viewer becomes a detective, following closely the filmmaker's journey burrowing through interiors and arcades in the hope of uncovering the identity of the city. We look into the faces of the city's inhabitants, contemplative portraits of anonymous faces while a voice-over creates a synchronic account of a mystical elusive city. Amber City is a puzzle; the viewer is on a desperate mission to decipher the code to the city's locale, to recognise its geographic markings, to understand its culture and to be enriched by its magnificent architectural heritage and history. Cohen's impression of the city invites comparisons to both the essayistic mode of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil and the lyricism of Italo Calvino's tribute to another unnamed city in his work, Invisible Cities. However where these texts become idiosyncratic urban poeticism, Cohen's film is more particularly striking with its scopological documentation of a city and its mysteries.

See also...

Smells Like Teen Spirit

A domestic portrait of Patti Smith and her son, Jackson. Invoking urban New York and rural America, it's about picking up guitars and doing dirty dishes. ... More »

Just Hold Still

Essentially a compilation work made up of numerous short pieces, described by Cohen as: Where Documentary Collides. Music Video As Independent Film. Birds As Punctuation ... The project compiles ... More »

This is a History of New York (The Golden Dark Age of Reason)

A "history" of New York City from Prehistoric Times through the Space Age, illustrated entirely with documentary street footage. ... The filmmaker made a wide-ranging study of radically different ... More »

Patti Smith: Long for the City

Patti Smith and her poetry wind their way through the streets of New York City, as she voices her thoughts on her neighbourhood and her life. ... More »

Witness Butthole Surfers

In which Cohen bears witness to the dark intensity of the American band Butthole Surfers filmed at a particularly exuberant show. Brooding and unsettling - an anti-music video??? ... More »


"Modern civilisation is shown as a bleakly homogenous super landscape in the ambitious [Chain], which links narrative fiction filmmaking to the avant-garde with vision and authority... the cumulative ... More »

Select a festival
Search The Film Archive
Browse By Director