Quality of cities, the magazine of the RATP group that shows THE CITY DIFFERENTLY.

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Interview with Hervé Cohen

Hervé Cohen, film-maker, documentary director and multi-award-winning cinematographer, has made approximately 15 documentaries all over the world.

How did your Life Underground multimedia project come about?
H.C. : I have always been fascinated by the metro. I grew up in Paris and it’s part of my DNA. Whenever I’m travelling, I immediately go down into the metro to take the pulse of the city, to observe how passengers dress, behave and to see if they communicate with each other.

People fascinate me: what’s the story behind this woman with a bunch of flowers? Is this nervous-looking passenger on their way to a job interview? It often makes me want to talk to them. This project was born out of this urge and curiosity about other people.

What role do mobility and transport play in cities, in your opinion?
H.C. : The metro is a place apart, the opportunity for a moment of meditation. We are there anonymously but also in intimate contact. Just look at the Paris metro, with the seats facing each other; our knees are touching! It is also one of the last remaining places for social mixing. On the New York subway, you can find CEOs travelling alongside domestic workers.

It was the perfect place to demonstrate that, despite our apparent differences, we have so many things in common. I didn’t do any casting, but approached passengers whose faces and behaviours made me want to talk to them. If you really listen, people are willing to open up.


“Despite our clear differences, we are all connected”

Hervé Cohen
Film-maker, documentary director and multi-award-winning cinematographer

The film invites you to take a stroll below the city, but also into the private lives of passengers. Is this artistic stance the best way to touch on our shared humanity?
H.C. : The interactive format was essential because it allows you to recreate the passengers’ experience. You click on the world map to choose your journey, you pause on a face to hear the person’s story and you can even get into the driver’s cab, which you wouldn’t normally be able to do. This is an opportunity that web users really like! Sound also plays a very important role in this immersive experience.

The music tracks have been created from recorded sounds – slamming doors, alarm signals, the rhythm of trains – which I entrusted to a musician, asking him not to use any instruments. This is also one of the aims of Life Underground: to show beauty, light, architecture, reflections in a window, to transform this moment of boredom into a moment of beauty and humanity.

Life Underground can be viewed online and also at installations in Los Angeles, Dubai, Singapore and now Marseille. How has it been received by the public?
H.C. : It moves people in an intimate way, like the woman in Union Station, Los Angeles, who vowed to talk to people the next time she took the subway,

or another who only realised the impact of her divorce on her son when she heard a young Parisian man talking about his experience. We are all connected: the way the film resonates with people all over the world is proof of it.

Encounters and immersion: embark on a unique voyage around the world with Life Underground, the web documentary produced by Hervé Cohen.

What makes the metro underground system an inclusive part of the city?
H.C. : It is an emblematic place, a crossroads of very diverse populations, people from elsewhere, whether from the regions or from abroad.

The metro also provides a contrast between the anonymity of the city and the intimacy of thoughts – despite our apparent differences, we have a great deal in common with the other passengers.

What does the future hold for the Life Underground project? Would you like to continue to expand it?
H.C. : I would like to film on other continents, to get closer to the reality and diversity of the world. This is difficult at the moment, but the project is designed to be expanded over time. Marseille was the first city we filmed in during the health crisis, and the stories we collected there bear witness to the collateral effects of the pandemic. Another ambition of mine is to chronicle these moments, to maintain a record of them that will still be around ten years from now.

The installations are the other part of this project and enable us to offer an immersive experience in different places. We showed Life Underground at Union Station in Los Angeles – nobody had bought a ticket to see these images, they were brought face to face with them by chance. It is different in a museum where we reach an audience that has specifically come to see it, and we can work more on the staging to augment the experience. Both of those aspects interest me.

Finally, I am also working on a new project: 20 short animated films from the stories told in Life Underground, which will open new windows on dreams or memories, with love being the first theme.

You recently took part in the World Fair in Dubai. How was your film received?
H.C. : I presented Life Underground in the French Pavilion during the week dedicated to mobility, and the French Embassy then organised a tour that allowed me to show the project to student audiences, including in fairly remote regions in the north of the Emirates.

It was an opportunity to convey a message of universalism and humanism, a kind of challenge. How was the film received in such a different cultural environment? Well, I was particularly touched by a screening at a women’s campus – they were immediately responsive and enthusiastic. This gave truth to the idea behind Life Underground, that we can all be similar beyond our differences.

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