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Processes and Contradictions of the Activist Documentary: 
interview with Jem Cohen

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

Transcription in PDF

          Operating for almost four decades in the New York alternative cinema scene, director Jem Cohen already has - for the vicissitudes of his field - a well-established trajectory. Born in Afghanistan, the son of American parents, he got involved early on in the underground music, photography, museum and gallery circuits, rather than in the mainstream film industry. Throughout his career, he has made a series of experimental films in collaboration with punk bands and others [works of which the best known is Instrument (1999), shot in super 8, 16mm and video gauges, about band Fugazi), landscape and meditative diaries of the metropolis and other cities such as Lost Book Found (1996) or Counting (2015), as well as brief forays into feature films that blend fictional narratives with fluneristic explorations of the geographies where it rotates, such as Museum Hours (2012) or Chain (2004). Cohen's style blends, in a very personal and unique way, a number of references that may, in principle, seem antipodes: the radical visual excitement and tension of lines that seem to come from the newsreels of a Vertov alternate with the almost imperturbable passivity of the detained gaze of a Wiseman; the coldness of the latter with the poetic, essayistic, and subjective verve of a Varda or a Mekas dealing with the raw material of life - all this intertwines in a rather unique and artisanal way of making films that - on the other hand, even more than most of these references - turn to a more radical circuit of experimental and art cinema, museums, and installations, often passing far away from commercial theaters.


          In January 2020, a few months before the world plunged into the pandemic, we had the opportunity to meet him during the filming of a documentary television series in New York. The initial intent was that the interview might or might not be part of the project. Kindly and without much reticence, Jem received us at his residence near a Hudson River dock area, in an apartment that is also his experimental laboratory, crammed with photographs, film, cameras, chemical materials, texts, etc. We talked mainly about activist documentary, having as the main axis of the discussion his reflections on the subject and his participation documenting in a series of short films the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. The result was this interview, available here in full, which, as we imagined, was not part of the initial project; but which serves the viewer as a very rich and personal reflection on the subject of one of the interesting names in American experimental cinema today. 

Interview: Pedro Henrique Ferreira

Light and Camera: Guilherme Tostes

Sound: Guilherme Farkas

Production: Carolina Amaral / Dilúvio Productions

+ Link for the film series entitled "Gravity Hill Newsreel", which contain 12 documentary shorts about the Occupy Wallstreet

+ Link for the manifesto"Nineteen Hopes for an Activist Cinema", by Jem Cohen.

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