“There’s Too Much Music in Films”: An Interview With ‘We Have an Anchor’ Filmmaker Jem Cohen

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An entire generation of punk fans are familiar with Jem Cohen’s work, largely thanks to Instrument, his 2001 documentary about Fugazi. The film stands as not only the best living visual document of what I consider to be the most important band of the last 25 years, but also the finest punk/DIY documentary ever made.

But even without Instrument, Cohen’s body of work stands alone. Blending 16mm, Super 8, and video, and usually accompanied by contributions from musicians like Elliott Smith (1997’s Lucky Three), Terry Riley, Blonde Redhead, and members of various iconic Washington, DC outfits, his are among the most prominent films to come out of the punk/DIY scene of the ’80s and ’90s. And Cohen recently made the move from underground favorite to critical darling with his 2012 drama Museum Hours.

To follow up that widely praised film, Cohen has returned to the less-structured realms of his original, experimental documentary medium. We Have an Anchor finds Cohen’s cameras exploring quiet parts of Nova Scotia, and includes live musical accompaniment by Guy Picciotto (Fugazi), Jim White (Dirty Three), T. Griffin (The Quavers), Efrim Manuel Menuck (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), Jessica Moss (Thee Silver Mt. Zion), Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), and special guest vocalist Mira Billotte (White Magic). The “hybrid documentary” premieres this Thursday and runs through Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Flavorwire spoke to Cohen about We Have an Anchor, his soundtrack collaborations, and his early infatuation with punk.

I first became familiar with your work through Instrument. While many of your works aren’t necessarily about bands or musicians, you have collaborated with many different musicians on scores for your films. I’m curious how that process works: do you ask certain musicians to record for something you’ve already filmed, or does the collaboration start earlier?

Well, I often think there’s too much music in films, and some of my projects, like Museum Hours, have no musical scores at all — though there is music that naturally occurs live in some scenes. I do get great inspiration from music, and I love working with certain musicians because what they pull out of thin air amazes me. With Instrument, we really worked hard to make the film itself musical, not just in terms of sound, but in terms of juxtaposition of images, overall rhythm, and so on, and I’d say the same for We Have an Anchor. I usually start editing in silence or with naturally existing sounds and then develop appropriate soundtracks as I go. Sometimes music is entirely composed for the project — with Anchor it worked that way (except for some preexisting hymns and old tunes we borrowed from). I often edited images first without score and then took sections of image to the musicians and they worked to them, at least to get the overall vibe, and then I’d cut more using their contributions. There’s no rule for the process, though.

There’s a punk/DIY sensibility that’s undeniable in your work, which extends to the musicians you chose to work with. Which came first for you, an interest in the punk world or photography and filmmaking?

I grew up in DC and was in my early days of taking pictures when punk hit in the late ’70s, but at the time it was more about listening and dancing than shooting for me. That scene was very open, very liberating, and it became a main focus of my world and that of my friends. I got used to seeing people build things out of nothing, and they did it without gunning for money or having expectations of glamorous careers, and that served me well later, as a filmmaker, when I was faced with the Hollywood template and had to find other routes. I wasn’t a musician, but cameras became my instruments, I guess. DIY wasn’t something that we thought about formally — it was the only way possible, and then it became the only way we wanted to work because it maximized our freedom. We wanted to develop ideas and sounds and pictures that weren’t dictated by some distant industry, by business concerns.

Still from ‘We Have an Anchor.’ Image courtesy BAM.

What drew you to Nova Scotia for We Have an Anchor? A lot of your past work seems to focus more on cities and urban environments, so this seems like a bit of a departure.

Cities, country — I like the whole world, but especially places that are wild, and that can be an urban thing or it can be the woods, ocean, sky. Cape Breton is very beautiful, but also tough, and both qualities drew me. There isn’t a lot of development there, which is a great relief, but they’ve seen very hard times. Anyhow, I can’t be in cities all of the time. I miss the night sky.

I’m curious what made you decide to make a film like We Have an Anchor as the followup to Museum Hours. What was it like to make the transition from a drama you wrote and directed to a work where you’re collaborating with musicians again?

Museum Hours was made in a stripped-down way, with just a few people around, and Mary Margaret O’Hara is of course a great musical presence, and both projects combine documentary with narrative and are trying to portray an environment in a way that is visceral. So, the projects do have a lot in common, and in a way it’s all the same road I’ve been on for almost 30 years. Sometimes the forms and venues become more accessible to people. Of course, Anchor isn’t trying to do the same thing as a film — it’s a live thing, it’s an experience that works as an environmental journey, and it’s more collaborative, so I allow myself to take different kinds of chances, to let go of some things. I wouldn’t use music the same way in a single-screen film, and I’m trying to learn from the presentation to plumb that territory between film and concert. It’s not improvised, but it’s less controlled than Museum Hours, and so in some ways it’s a different experiment with different pitfalls and pleasures.

Still from ‘We Have an Anchor.’ Image courtesy BAM

You shot Anchor with 16mm film, and it’s been described as “an elegy for a disappearing medium.” Do you see the decline of film, in favor of digital video, as negatively impacting the art of filmmaking and photography?

Well, something is getting lost and other things are becoming possible. I’m not a purist, and I shoot all kinds of material — in fact, it’s all mixed together in Anchor. But my work, my life, came up with film, and it’s very close to my heart in a way that digital isn’t really, at least not yet. I like rougher edges. In this one, I was able to use digital technology to preserve and celebrate those rough edges, so it’s fully a bridging of the two.