​punk is the word on the door: an interview with jem cohen

We interviewed Jem Cohen at the Whitechapel gallery to talk about punk, protest and DIY movie making.

by Sophia Satchell Baeza
11 May 2015, 9:22pm

Over the last few months, London has been celebrating the work of the Brooklyn-based punk filmmaker Jem Cohen with what is, amazingly, the first major British retrospective of his work. Having become one of cinema's leading essay and diary film-makers after spending three decades making over seventy films that span a number of styles and formats, Cohen isn't showing any signs of slowing down. His multi-screen essay film We Have An Anchor had its European premiere at the Barbican with a live soundtrack featuring musicians from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fugazi and Dirty Three. Small gauge formats paired with digital, multi-screen projections and an extraordinary live musical performance to create an immersive and sensory portrait. The film was composed of impressionistic footage of the landscape of Cape Breton, shot by the filmmaker over a decade and interlaced with the words of poets and Cape Breton inhabitants (like the legendary artists Robert Frank and June Leaf). We caught up with Cohen to talk punk, Polaroids, and Occupy Wall Street: 

What does punk mean to you?
I grew up in D.C. in the midst of this very joyful punk rock awakening in the late 70s/early 80s. It was the first major indicator in my own life that people could create things without any support from an industry. It was very open, actually, to different kinds of music - not just the stuff people tend to think of as punk - it encompassed psychedelia and rockabilly, funk and go-go, weird experimentalism… and it was good to dance to! It was a wonderful opening. It meant that weirdos were welcome; people who didn't have money or dressed funny or just felt uncomfortable with society could find themselves in a room together, jump up and down to The Cramps or the Nurses or Bad Brains and feel some sort of freedom. For many of us, punk had little to do with fashion and everything to do with people coming together to try and make something out of nothing.

Jem Cohen, Gravity Hill Newsreels, 2011, Courtesy of Jem Cohen 

It also eventually opened the door to critiquing a culture that can be very repressive. There was humor and anger in this music and the possibility to use any form to work out ideas. That carried through for me into working with bands like Fugazi, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Ex. It's been a constant in my life. When that door opened, for me, 'punk' was the word on the door. But it could have been plenty of other words.

Your most recent film to screen here, We Have An Anchor, is a documentary ode to Cape Breton. How did you arrive at that place?
I have an affinity for certain landscapes I think. As a child I'd been to Scotland and Wales, and loved them, and Nova Scotia looked very similar. So, my friends in Fugazi were playing a show in Halifax and I thought it would be interesting to see them play there, and then to visit some older artists up North who'd been there since the 70s. So I jumped off the Fugazi train and went on up to the island and was totally entranced. Over the next ten years I came back maybe half a dozen times, always filming. On one trip I brought musicians with me, in the middle of winter, to develop sounds for Anchor. We holed up in a place called Wreck Cove, and I'd shoot and they'd play, responding to the place, to footage I already had, and to ideas we talked over, about certain drum patterns, guitar sounds, about getting at the spirit of a place without copying its existing musical traditions.

How did you set about editing the film and putting the music together?
I cut it myself, sometimes working just with nature recordings or interviews, sometimes using demos from the musicians, trying to build something between a film and a concert. I wanted people to be knocked off guard, to make something that refused to hew to known structures. So the musicians have to play very carefully live, dropping in and out of what is essentially a documentary, albeit an unusual one, and then roaring off on their own, full bore. It needed to be unpredictable, so the audience doesn't necessarily know when they're being given over to environmental sounds or entering the world of a person in Cape Breton, versus when it's more about the live music.

Jem Cohen, Instrument, 1998, Courtesy of Jem Cohen and LUX, London 

Can you speak a little more about your Occupy Newsreels and how you see them in relation to other Occupy material?
While Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza was occupied, I was given an interesting opportunity by a local cinema. I'd asked them 'If I made you newsreels, would you play them as newsreels, i.e. before the feature films you happen to be showing?' So when the guy rather fearlessly said that he would, I decided to jump in and create and turn them around immediately. It was quite amazing to have the shorts playing about a 30 minute walk from the occupation.

Occupy was heavily documented. For one thing, it developed its own media teams to do advocacy, to make films primarily intended to serve the movement. While I was extremely sympathetic and wanted to be part of what was happening, I myself don't generally make work with advocacy as the primary intention. I do value all kinds of political cinema - even some that could be considered to be propaganda - if it's in the hands of masters like Santiago Álvarez or Humphrey Jennings. So while I was excited and happy that the media collectives were there at Zuccotti Park, I also knew they were doing a different job than mine. My primary role was observational and, for the most part, my newsreels intentionally do not indicate what anybody should think or feel, though I'd never suggest that they're purely objective.

Every time I start to say something about what Occupy was as a movement, I have to stop myself, because part of the point was not to lock in particular goals and ideals, but to create a space for discussion and questioning. That said, for many participants there was definitely an anti-capitalist bent, and the movement to me had a great deal to do with people reacting against the ways consumerism has been prioritized above so many other things. So it was ironic to start seeing films that were pro-Occupy but looked and felt like Coke ads. I thought 'fuck, that's a problem, even if it's well-intentioned' and I also tried to work against that.

Jem Cohen, Buried in Light, 1994, Courtesy of Jem Cohen and LUX, London 

How about your Polaroid photographs? How did it feel exhibiting these recently?
I was completely obsessed with Polaroid and instant film in general. It was a format I felt very connected to, very intimate with, and I'm not really sure why. I've been taking stills for years and years, mostly as a private enterprise because it's actually a great relief to be able to go out and make something that comes into existence in a matter of moments, as opposed to the kind of long-term struggle that filmmaking usually entails. I often blow the Polaroids up, sometimes very big, and I also do pieces using multiple images. I increasingly like the idea of showing the stills, of having that side of my work recognized. It breaks my heart that I can't get the film I used to get. I'm glad people are still keeping instant film going but it's so expensive now, and the chemistry is shakier. I've got my fingers crossed though...

Can you tell me more about your new film Counting?
It's a film in 15 discrete but connected chapters. Some are city portraits, others are little visual essays, and some are more directly personal and diaristic than what I've tended to do in the past. I feel I made it out of necessity. And it's a film that I made thinking about what documentary is, or what it could be. Like a lot of my work, it's very much grounded in everyday life. There's a focus on observation and listening as primary experiences. That's a through-line I always return to.

Jem Cohen film, music and performance season at the Barbican, Whitechapel Gallery and Hackney Picturehouse until May 28, 2015. To book: www.whitechapelgallery.org.

Jem Cohen, We Have an Anchor, Courtesy Jem Cohen 

Jem Cohen
sophia satchell baeza
we have an anchor