Jem Cohen: Unusual But Accessible Filmmaking

Photo by Austin McAllister

The Gowanus-based artist and filmmaker first fell in love with Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton when he visited in the late 90s while working on a documentary with Fugazi. “On the surface, much of it is very, very beautiful, and very secluded, so initially I was drawn mostly by the wilderness,” he tells us. “Of course, Cape Breton can be a tough place, too; it’s faced a lot of rough times, economically, and can be very insular, but it’s really special.”

Cohen turned footage he shot on repeated return trips into We Have an Anchor, a theatrical event featuring film projections, text, and a live musical score; it’ll be shown/performed in Brooklyn on September 26-28 as part of BAM’s annual Next Wave Festival. “The score is pretty tightly composed to the images rather than improvised,” he tells us. “Though the musicians have some room to move, and each performance is different.” (Those musicians include Guy Picciotto from Fugazi as well as members of The Silver Mt. Zion, The Quavers, Dirty Three and other bands.)

The work might sound slightly different than Cohen’s recent film Museum Hours, a relatively conventional movie about a museum guard in Vienna who befriends a visitor (which opened at the IFC Center in June), but he doesn’t see it that way. “I see all of my work as all part of a continuum,” Cohen tells us. “If people want to assume that Museum Hours is [as you said] a ‘more or less straightforward feature film’ and that makes it less intimidating and encourages a wider reach, that’s good. But in truth, I had no interest in doing even a relatively conventional film, and it’s strange to me to hear it referred to as one. I can’t say I agree with the description, but then again I’ve always felt that I generally make accessible work—it’s just that commercial forces are so dominating that it’s hard for most unusual work to get seen, even if it actually has something to offer a wide range of people.”


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