By David A. Ellis.
Filmmaker Jem Cohen was born in Afghanistan in August 1962. His father was working there for the United States Agency for International development, and Jem remained in Kabul for around two years before returning to the states. He went to public school before attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where he studied art and photography.
Cohen leans towards punk music but enjoyed the sounds of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. His latest movie Counting opened in New York City on July 31st and runs for 111 minutes. He has shot around seventy films using only a small crew; many of his films were done solo. Cohen has used several formats, super 8, 16mm, video and now digital. As well as shooting moving images he is an established photographer.
Cohen has collaborated with a number of music people including Terry Riley, Blonde Redhead and The Ex. He has also worked with directors Martin Scorsese, Alex Cox, and John Sayles.
Is Jem short for your name?
No, that’s all there is.
Have you been to the UK?
Yes, I did some work at the Barbican.
Did you go to the cinema a lot as a child?
No, I didn’t really go to the cinema a lot. I came from a family that was involved in the arts. My father painted and my mother had previously been married to a photographer. I had a background that was steeped in the arts. It wasn’t so much focused on cinema. When I went to university I studied painting and photography. They didn’t have much in the way of film production.
How did you learn about filmmaking techniques?
I learned by just doing it. I picked up cameras and hit the road.
I see you are an all rounder – you are a cinematographer, producer, soundman, editor, writer and composer – which one did you do first?
Because of the type of work I do there isn’t really a distinction between departments. I am often working on my own or with a very small crew. I don’t think of a cinematographer as being separate from a director. I think of myself as filmmaker. That is simply someone who shoots, directs, produces and gets involved in the various aspects.
How big was the crew on Counting?
On Counting it was just me. I have often worked on my own. Sometimes there is a sound person and on other occasions a slightly larger crew. On Counting I recorded the sound as best I could while shooting it.
Did it take you long to get used to the various aspects?
I picked them up by necessity. I had to be able to do it effectively on my own. You learn by doing it.
Do you work long hours on your projects?
Absolutely, it is always long hours.
Is directing your main interest?
Again, I don’t separate, I really don’t. If I’m going to create the vision in my head it’s very useful to have my hands on the camera and make that a direct translation rather than have somebody else. It’s very useful to be like the car mechanic and the driver.
How long does it usually take to shoot your movies – for example, how long did it take to shoot Counting?
Counting was relatively short. It was shot over three years. Others have taken a lot longer, for example Benjamin Smoke (2000) was over ten years. Some are done in an afternoon.
Would you tell me a bit about Counting?
Counting was shot digitally and is in the style of a street photographer where much of what I am doing is wandering in foreign cities. I visited Moscow, New York and several others. It is a documentary record. When I got home I spent a lot of time organising and developing it. I don’t work in a traditional movie mode where you have a script, a production crew and schedule.
Was it shot hand held?
Half was hand held and half on a tripod.
I see you have shot a lot on 16mm – did you blow some of them up to 35mm?
I have shot a great deal on 16mm. I continue to shoot on 16mm and will as long as it is available. To blow a 16mm print up to 35mm is prohibitively expensive.
What do you think of digital compared to film and are you sad to see film disappear?
I am heartbroken to see film disappear – it will be a tremendous loss. I am very dedicated to the practicality of what is possible with digital. I am very pleased that there is something that I can do with digital that I couldn’t do with film. I can do long takes, it is cheaper and the quality can be quite extraordinary. It doesn’t replace film but it’s a different thing that has its pluses and minuses.
Where are your films screened?
My films are screened at festivals internationally that are open to non-commercial cinema. If I am lucky I get picked up by a distributor, who is also open to non-commercial cinema. They are also screened in art houses, museums and universities. Hopefully they enter the stream of the home market, primarily through DVD or video on demand.
What are the budgets for your films?
They are generally very low budgets but I don’t find that side interesting. I don’t think that a budget has anything to do with the quality of a film. There are many films that cost a hundred million dollars that aren’t worth somebody’s home movies.
Do you write scripts or do you get a scriptwriter in?
I generally don’t use scripts. Occasionally there are films that are partially scripted. I am interested in scripts when I need them. I am often making a hybrid, which is somewhere between narrative and documentary.
If you hadn’t have entered the film world what else would you have liked to do?
I think I would have liked to have been a musician.
Can you play instruments?
No, but I am very interested in music.
I see you are interested in punk music – are you interested in other styles?
I think that punk is a problematic term because it means different things to different people. To me it indicates a certain kind of freedom and energy and it doesn’t really have to do with the sound or band or period. It has to do with an attitude in which people are trying to make things with a great deal of freedom and with a non-commercial attitude. I also enjoy classical music.
Do you also like pop music?
I liked it when it was the Beatles.
You once described music videos as a polluted river – why did you give them that description?
Well, I think that music videos very quickly become a form of advertising – they weren’t really about the music and they weren’t really about filmmaking. They were about promotion and often they were a way for a company to try to sell a band. That strikes me as a very compromised approach to the combination of music and image, which can be a very exciting and invigorating thing. So I was very disappointed with the overwhelming majority of music videos.
I understand the Hollywood mainstream is incompatible with your artistic and political views – do you not watch any of Hollywood’s output?
New ones no, though I’m sure there are exceptional films out there. I have seen many classic Hollywood films that are absolutely extraordinary and invaluable. Two of the directors I like are Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Starting in the 1980s it turned to blockbuster mentality, which became uninteresting.
Do you have any favourites you have worked on and why?
I don’t work commercially – I work trying to create what I feel most strongly about and what I believe in and often what I see. I feel that all of my work is very much my own. I would certainly include Counting and Museum Hours; shot on 16mm among my favourites. I am also quite fond of Benjamin Smoke, which I co-directed with Pete Sillen. As for why. These are films, which are ways of navigating the world, and when I see them I am reminded of the world that I navigated. So they all bring things back to me in a very precious way.
How long of a gap do you have between films?
I am always shooting – there is no gap.
Finally, would you like to call it a day when you hit your sixties or would you like to carry on into old age like many other filmmakers?
No, I will never call it a day – I will call it a day in the cosy coffin.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).