I had the opportunity to hear Jem Cohen talk three times in the past three days. The first was a supposed ‘master class’, which was really just a talk, where he was accompanied by Guy Picciotto (of Fugazi) and Todd Griffin, both musicians. The talk was called Another kind of music, and it was about the way he approaches filmmaking in relation to sound and music. One of his insights was that making films can be a bit like making music; there’s rhythm, texture, and other sensory elements in the mix, beside the more evident aspect of narrative that is most films’ core. He also said that the way he shoots his footage is akin to a musician’s improvisation.
He showed some of his short films/videos, or fragments of them. One of those was Little flags, which will give you an idea of what he does. The truth is, I went to this talk not knowing anything about this man, other than him being a filmmaker, and his link to music. For, you see, he seems to often work with musicians, or simply make sound a vital part of his work. The day before that talk, I was seeing Avi Mograbi’s Z32 while one of Jem’s works was being screened elsewhere, called Ciudad de México por azar, with simultaneous live music by the aforementioned musicians, plus DJ Rupture and Andy Moor. I didn’t know this event was taking place, or I would have been there, especially after seeing Chain the evening after the talk, which was already a day too late anyway. Chain is a feature-length, sharp, documentary-like view on the culture of consumerism. After the screening of that movie, he was there to answer questions and talk a bit about it.
He’s here in Chile because of Sanfic, the Santiago International Film Festival, which has been my chance to see some new films, and also hear the directors talk about them, which is quite an interesting experience. The final time I saw Jem was after a showing of a few of his shorts, including Lost book found, most likely the highlight among the bunch. In this short, he tells his story of what it was like being a push cart vendor in the city, and his discovery of a notebook that was filled with a strictly categorized, but seemingly nonsensical, list of numbers, places, things, situations related to the city. I asked him whether the story was real, to which he said it partially was. He refused to say if the book ever existed.