A Chain Letter to the Future

By Kieron Corless

jem-cohen.jpgJem Cohen

Experimental filmmaker Jem Cohen discusses his first narrative feature, the globally resonant Chain.

In the last 16 years, Jem Cohen has produced a dazzlingly varied body of work; he’s probably best-known to music fans for his hypnotic videos accompanying several REM singles and for Instrument, a typically multi-textured, impressionistic portrait of the hardcore band Fugazi. In addition he’s stacked up numerous festival prizes for meditative shorts and documentary portraits of cityscapes and marginalised figures, with the likes of Benjamin Smoke, Lost Book Found and Buried In Light.

history-of-new-york-jem-cohen.jpgThis Is a History of New York, 1987

Cohen describes himself as a “grey area filmmaker”; his pieces are rough-hewn collages assembled over years, which typically weave together image, word and music in new and surprising ways. They blur genre boundaries, mix different film stocks and adopt a fragmented, free-associative style to capture fleeting epiphanies. More often than not Cohen has worked solo, patiently trawling the streets gathering filmic shards, traces of everyday objects and people that inhabit the margins of our vision. He is preoccupied with memorialisation, preserving on film those communities and ways of life which may be on the verge of extinction in the onward march of history and globalising economics. His work always comes deeply infused with a sense of place and an independent spirit forged in the Washington DC punk scene.

Kieron Corless: You’ve described Chain as a unique hybrid of documentary and narrative, a new form of feature film?

Jem Cohen: Well, hearing that come back to me, of course I’m somewhat appalled that I would ever make claims towards devising a new form of feature film. Essentially, what I’ve always done is to work over a very long period of time gathering scraps of images and information and then building something out of them which isn’t traditional documentary and isn’t traditional narrative, but lives off of the collision between the two. Making a narrative feature film in that grey area between genres, it’s going to be a strange beast by default. With Chain, I’m starting with a documentary base drawn out of an obsession with new landscapes and I’m going to drop stories into it. I have footage taken all over the world; Berlin, L.A., Florida, New Jersey, Rotterdam, Canada, etc. but it’s generally quite unidentifiable, and can be seamed together into one ‘superlandscape’ that actors (and non-actors) can inhabit… It’s forcing me to try to deal with the difference between narrative and documentary; to see where they can overlap and try to make the seams organic. You’re kind of flowing out of one genre into another at any given moment. That’s quite rewarding for me. It’s an odd way to work but I’m really excited about it.

KC: And you plan to film and release it in short segments?

JCChain is going to take on different forms which will serve different purposes. The goal is to make a feature film but it’s a predictably miserable situation trying to raise funds for that, so I have to make it happen by any means necessary. One of the means is to create discrete sections which can be joined together - links, if you will. It’s conceivable that they will be numbered and released in stages, so that Chain One through Five comes out at one point, and Six through Ten at another point, with everyone knowing that when it reaches a certain number they’ll be shifted around and augmented and then joined together to become a feature. I’m also doing three-screen installation versions, which will be the first ones to see the light. The installation versions will probably emphasize the landscapes and the soundscapes and the musical collaboration, which is primarily with Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor! The installation will be something you can walk into at any moment whereas the feature really has to work as a feature.

chain-jem-cohen.jpgChain, 2004

KC: Will there be an overarching narrative?

JC: Yes and no. There have been quite a few films that have been done in linked sections or short stories that sometimes involve characters who criss-cross and it’s all tied together. I’m more interested in having everything in the film steeped in a thematic glue which already exists in the landscapes themselves. In other words they’re not simply places; there’s a social landscape, a corporate landscape, a mentality reflected in these places. So, the common glue is this world we’re entering into: it has a lot of different names or ‘themes’ associated with it, the so-called ‘age of information’ or of corporate takeover or globalization, and that panopticon sense of power increasingly being determined by surveillance. Those issues are what bring all the elements together. The stories are about people trying to navigate that broader landscape; a social and economic landscape. That’s what connects everything. I’m not interested in cute ways to tie one character to another.

KC: How much of Chain will be scripted and how much improvised?

JC: Well, there are a number of stories that are scripted, but even the scripts, compared to traditional screenplays, are relatively minimal; meant to be suggestive vignettes rather than neat, tidy little stories. But they are scripted. A lot of the time the actors will be placed directly in situations where they’re intermingling with the real world and I’m shooting in such a low-key way that the real world doesn’t have to know about it. We have to improvise some, to stay on our toes...

KC: What are the main antecedents for Chain?

JC: The antecedents are more in books than in film. The two big touchstones for me are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which basically stemmed from looking at some of the earliest shopping malls - thinking about what they mean in the world and even about what kind of characters were being born to populate these places. It’s so beautifully prescient and complicated, and he was already fully crossing from criticism to documentary to fragments of poetry in his work, so he’s always been very important to me. The other main touchstone is Humphrey Jennings’ book Pandaemonium. Both of those people were essentially working in collage and they’re basically non-linear thinkers. The books are massive collages that were trying to get at something about a giant change that had happened in the world which couldn’t be grasped in a normal, linear way. I’m trying, in some much smaller ways, to take that on.

chain-jem-cohen-2.jpgChain, 2004

KC: Is your work becoming more overtly political?

JC: I feel like I’m an increasingly political filmmaker, but maybe the more political I get, the more critical it is that the politics are under the surface, because I think that sometimes that’s where they’re most powerful and most complicated. If viewers feel that when they sit down they already know the ride they’re about to take then I’m not doing anything. I don’t want to make this movie for people who already feel a certain way. I want people to watch my films and be challenged and puzzled and sometimes wonder what the politics are. That said, I think that the act of documentation, simply looking honestly at even just the physical environment can have political implications. A new Wal-Mart megastore goes up every few days, but they have this strange invisibility. I think we’d better start taking a long, hard look at places like those. But some of the characters I’m most interested in are totally part of that world, and I have to treat them like human beings.

KC: Is Chain an attempt to shift from film as product to film as process, giving audiences and institutions a stake in watching it develop?

JC: I think so. What I hope (and I could be hopelessly naive about it) is that some venues, festivals, museums and small theatres will become interested in seeing it grow. Like, “OK we saw that piece, we saw that form, let’s see what turn he takes with it next.” The thing is, as far as the audience goes, this is our world and I think that everyone in the audience ought to be able to connect with that, because it’s what they see, it’s what they have to live with. They go down the highway and they look to the left and there’s a giant new box building that’s landed there in a week and a half. And we are all under surveillance. That ought to be of concern to people and it ought to interest them. But it’s incredibly frustrating, to find people really interested in the project and really intelligent about it, saying over and over again, you can’t fund this, no-one will know what to do with this as a feature… And I’m also trying to make the film in a different way; I don’t really share in the ‘romance’ of traditional movie-making, where movie ‘magic’ often equals spectacle.

KC: Where are you up to with the financing?

JC: I’m paying for it mostly out of pocket, and with some arts grants, and watching the “real movie” financing not happen, at least so far. So, what else is new?

KC: But you’re determined to press on regardless?

JC: I’ll make the fucking movie. It’s very depressing to me to realize that it took ten years to make Instrument, that Benjamin Smoke took ten years too; Lost Book Found was six years, even though they all overlapped. I don’t want to spend ten years on this project and I feel like the issues are somewhat urgent. But that little window for independent film as we knew it has been slammed shut and we need to find new ways to do things. Most people are finding that in terms of DV and digital filmmaking. To some degree I understand that, and parts of my film will end up being digital, but only when it’s directly motivated by a character using a video camera or surveillance footage or whatever. The fact of the matter is, shooting wide landscapes in video, the soul tends to go out of them, and I need to hang on to that. So once again, I find myself pushing on in a supposedly dying format. For years it was Super 8, and now that all the hype is about digital filmmaking, here I am shooting in 16mm. So it’s going to be a struggle and I’m not happy about that but I never expected otherwise.

Kieron Corless works as a film/television journalist and critic.