Walking the Straight Edge
The Texas Documentary Tour: Jem Cohen and Fugazi
By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 3, 1999
In the early-to-mid-Eighties, Washington, D.C., played a role on the global stage not only as home to the increasingly conservative and polarizing presidency of Ronald Reagan but also as a nexus for the emerging second wave of punk rock. Such bands as Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and the ubiquitous teetotaling teen movement known as "straight edge" were birthed during the salad days of the D.C. hardcore scene, fueled as much by a fierce love of independent music and all the trappings that came with it (aggro flier art, micro-record labels such as Dischord Records) as by the snot-nosed swagger and post-pubescent braggadocio of the first wave of punk. New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen grew up in the midst of all this, attending high school alongside such scene luminaries as Ian MacKaye. Eventually, Cohen pointed his camera to record the evolution of MacKaye's second major band, Fugazi.
Forsaking major-label stardom and instead following a strict code of musical and political conduct stressing mind over money, Fugazi has, in the past 12 years, become something of a DIY cause célèbre, a tightly knit quartet that has proved time and time again that yes, Virginia, there is life outside of the A&R guy's grasp.
Beginning 10 years ago, Cohen began shooting footage of the band with the vague idea of someday putting it all together to form some sort of portrait of American independent music at work. With the release of his new film, Instrument, that day has arrived.
Cohen, who has also worked with the likes of REM and Elliott Smith (and shot the Super-8 Witness Butthole Surfers film way back in 1986), spoke to me about his film and the state of indie filmmaking from his home in New York.
Austin Chronicle: What drew you to filmmaking as opposed to other artistic media?
Jem Cohen: I started out taking stills and painting and doing slide shows with music, from which it was a short stumble over to filmmaking. I didn't go to film school -- I was a studio-art major in college, so I did actually come from other places.
AC: When you were younger were you one of those kids wandering around with a Super-8 camera clutched firmly in hand?
JC: I did some Super-8 when I was a kid, animation and stuff, but I didn't have that concept of, like, documenting the world around me until I was older. Then it became really habitual and there were long stretches where I carried a camera constantly.
AC: What prompted that?
JC: I think there's a tradition of street photography that always really interested me and people that I loved, like Robert Frank or Walker Evans. My first job in New York was as a pushcart vendor and I wasn't shooting at the time but I feel like that job had a lot to do with my interest in staring at really kind of commonplace things on the street all day and getting interested in them. All of my projects are done by gathering material on a daily basis rather than working from a script or a production plan. I kind of grew up in the music scene and I started taking stills and so it just made sense that I would eventually pick up a movie camera.
AC: How did growing up around the D.C. hardcore scene influence your work?
JC: Well, it wasn't really the hardcore scene at that time. I graduated from high school in 1980, so my experiences in D.C. were completely soaked in the early days of punk rock as it washed over these shores. It was a very, very exciting time. All of my social life and all of my kicks were wrapped up in local music rather than local dope. All of my friends were forming bands, going to see bands, and so on. My way of partaking of that scene was to start shooting it. I shot pictures of the Teen Idles and other local bands, but not very much. That was just the beginning of it for me. I kind of missed a lot of the heyday of the D.C. scene, when it came into its own and there were bands like Rites of Spring, but I was there for the first hit and the early germination. I've been trying to explain to people that what made it so amazing was that it wasn't so insular: there were all different kinds of music that we were all excited about at the same time. People that I knew that were punk-rock kids were also really into rockabilly and garage music and psychedelia. Everybody was at the same shows every night. It was a very wide-open kind of feeling. And it was a nice feeling. It was very open-minded.
AC: How did that impact your filmmaking style?
JC: There's just a real obvious parallel, to me, in that when I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker and when I realized that I wasn't really interested in mainstream filmmaking or the movie industry, I had a model to turn to, and that was the model of independent music and punk rock. It completely informed the way that I worked, because all of my friends grew up wanting to get into music and then faced an industry that closed them out completely and had no interest in them or their kind of music and was really built around hits and giant concerts. I'm lucky that I had that precedent because it gave me a path where otherwise I would have just seen obstacles.
AC: Do you consider yourself a documentary filmmaker or a filmmaker who's made a documentary? Or does that even matter?
JC: In my situation, all of my work is in a gray area between definable genres, so it's never a straight documentary, it's never a normal narrative, and I would never like to describe the work as an "experimental film" because that really alienates people. This project -- the Fugazi project -- we really consider to be a "document." But we don't know what it is, really. We never knew what it was. I don't mind people calling me a documentary filmmaker -- I just don't make straight documentaries.
AC: Was it a conscious choice on your part to utilize so much Super-8 and small-gauge film as opposed to employing 16mm or 35mm stock?
JC: It was all pieced together from what I could afford and what I had in my hand and what I was comfortable with and what I could carry in my bag. It had nothing to do with any predetermined aesthetic plan. All of that sort of collage aspect is a natural outgrowth of the way that I had to make it. And also, a lot of other people donated all sorts of amazing material that came in on all kinds of formats. It really is important to note that there's great stuff in that project that I didn't shoot. Luckily, the project served as a sort of magnet to draw that stuff in.
AC: How did you hook up with Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto and why did you choose Fugazi to focus on?
JC: Ian and I went to high school together so we were hooked up from square one. I loved the band from the start and I was interested in the band from the start and I was witness to the band from the start. Fugazi was always the band that fucked with the borders. The inception of Fugazi was in some inherent way a confrontation to the idea of a D.C. hardcore band. People had this very rigid notion of what D.C. hardcore was and a lot of that did come from the popularity of [formative D.C. punk group featuring MacKaye] Minor Threat. If you were around when Fugazi came into being it was apparent that this band was not in any way going to ride on those coattails. Because they were always going to be experimenting and sort of drifting off into new and different directions, it made it a much more interesting thing to be filming over the course of 10 years, because I never knew what they were going to come up with. It really would have been pretty tedious if I was just, like, "Here we go again, shooting another Fugazi show." The whole pleasure of it was trying to create a filmic form that sort of stepped over boundaries in the same way that the band was doing.
AC: What was your goal, if any, with the creation of Instrument? How did you want to impact the audience?
JC: Well, I don't think I can make movies thinking about how I want to impact the audience. What I can do is to try and honestly capture something that goes on around me, that affects me, that I think is interesting and moving and important and hilarious. When we got into the project and it really became a collaboration and we knew that it was going to be, someday, a finished release, we could have looked at all of the other documentaries about music, so-called "rockumentaries," but we really didn't. We pretty much decided not to look at any of them, not to study any of them. I did feel that there were a lot of people that either didn't have access to the band or had something of a misconception of what they were like. I wanted to address those issues to some degree, but what I really wanted to do was just capture music-making and try to make something that felt, visually, like music, and something where the music was inextricably tied in with the moving pictures. That's sort of the simple answer. While I was doing it I wasn't thinking about it that much. Music is a really big aspect of my life and so it just made sense that I would document music in this way. And Fugazi's performing is incredibly fluid and visually crazy. There's very little boring about watching them play. I was just trying to get that down on film.
AC: Instrument has a very dreamlike, trancey quality to it in its execution and the way it captures the whole of Fugazi from their interaction with boisterous fans to the live performances.
JC: I appreciate that. I think that dreamlike aspect is interesting and really important. It's not because we set out to do something that was dreamlike, but the fact that for Fugazi, on one hand it's totally down and dirty, only white light, no gimmicks. On one hand, it's like they're coal miners going to work. On the other hand, there is something hallucinatory about it because they really step off.
The world is insane. The world that we drive around in, if you tour with the band or if you just look out your window, the world is insane, and so the project should reflect that. It shouldn't just be about rock & roll, or indie rock, or four guys and what they're like, you know? It should be about some other things which are central to lived experience. One of the reasons why I work with Fugazi and they work with me is that we enjoy traveling through this madness. It's what they write songs about and it's what I try to document in my films. And that's good if we can bring that together in a way that on one hand is a simple evocation of what it's like to be a musician and on the other hand it's a not-so-simple evocation of what it's like to be a musician in this very strange world. So that's what we tried to do. It's about experience, and it's about experience that's ongoing.
AC: Watching Instrument, I was struck by the very DIY attitude and structure of the film and its subject. It's very indie in the best sense of that word, and I wanted to ask you what you thought about the recent unparalleled success of another small-gauge indie, The Blair Witch Project. What do you think this is going to herald for the future of indie productions, if anything?
JC: Well, I haven't seen it, actually. I don't see many current films to be honest with you. My feelings about that, though, are that people are heralding this sort of digital revolution in filmmaking and in some way it's going to open up a lot of possibilities for people. Anything that threatens Hollywood, there's gotta be something positive in it. I'm also a little bit dubious because, for one thing, one of the problems that we have now is not that too many people aren't making movies, it's that too many people are making movies. It doesn't make me happy to think that every kid in the country wants to go to NYU film school and have a big successful feature that they only spent $5,000 on. That is not exciting to me. What is exciting to me is when people like Sadie Benning [some of whose work is showing on Thursday, September 9, 7:30pm at the Dobie, as part of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival] come out of the blue and make something really interesting on a Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera. It's exciting to me when somebody uses video because it's somehow inextricably tied in with the nature of the project. And it seems like that is the case in Blair Witch and I think that's cool. I don't have anything against a movie that I haven't seen. But I just feel like people need to turn their attention more toward whether they really need to be expressing themselves through moving pictures, not whether they can now make a feature film.
It's just like with bands: The independent music revolution was very exciting -- and can still be very exciting. It's great to think that people are out there in their home studios, making their records, and not having to spend a fortune on it and sign to a major label. But it's not so great to hear four million demo tapes that sound like somebody else. That's exactly the parallel and there's nothing that inherently thrilled me about The Blair Witch Project because I've been shooting by the seat of my pants for 15 years. Most of the people that I know have been quietly making projects on their own that have also been innovative and bold and involved. This guy Christopher Munch shot this film called The Hours and the Times, directed it, edited it, and recorded the sound, and it's in 35mm film and it's a fucking amazing movie, you know? It's like, that was pretty damn cool, too. I think there's a lot of exciting stuff happening now, but technology is not what interesting projects are made of. We'll see what happens.