Known for films that combine street footage with elements of documenary, narrative, and experimental approaches, Jem Cohen’s filmography includes the documentaries Instrument (1999), made with and about the band Fugazi, and Benjamin Smoke (2000), among others. Coming to the Walker April 27 for a dialogue with musician Vic Chesnutt, Cohen discussed his first narrative feature film, Chain (which screens here on April 26) with Dean Otto, assistant film/video curator. For the work, he converted the non-narrative three-screen installation Chain X 3, featuring endless footage of chain stores, fast-food restaurants, and suburban parking lots, into a fictional feature on the same themes but using character actors. In this excerpt of their interview (full interview here), Cohen discusses how footage he habitually shoots whenever he travels coalesced into a refined film concept.
Dean Otto: At what point did you realize that project was the one you would be working on with that footage?
Jem Cohen: Well, I think it came out of my work doing city portraits–places that had a regional character that was strong, but endangered. So I was often having to frame things out: a billboard or a new skyscraper or a franchise hotel or a mall encroaching on some extraordinary neighborhood. I’d be shooting a beautiful street in Prague in the middle of the night and I would have my back to the new McDonalds that was ruining the view in that direction. After contending with that, often by documenting the very thing that was disappearing, I began to feel that I had some kind of obligation to deal with this new world and to face these issues head on. I forced myself to put those things that I had long avoided square into the center of the frame and to examine the changes.
DO: It’s very poignant that you’re presenting this work here because the first indoor mall in America was Southdale in Edina, Minnesota. With the explosion in the number of corporate mergers, it seems as if a small number of corporations are dictating architecture through branding and franchising, and there is a real comfort that people feel through corporate identity.
JC: That’s an integral part of the project: it isn’t about any one thing, but that is as important as any other theme in there. Corporations are faced with this endless, brutal game of trying to create the impression of novelty while really destroying difference. It’s kind of devastating, but it’s really important that we take a closer look at it. I can’t believe I came to the Midwest and didn’t get out to the Mall of America–the ber mall.
Earlier: Jem Cohen’s run-in with Homeland Security!