Born in 1962 in Kabul, Afghanistan while his father was there working for the US Agency for Information and Development, Jem Cohen has been a prolific New York independent filmmaker since the early 80s. He is noted for collaborations with the likes of Patti Smith, REM and Vic Chesnutt, and for his co-directed (with Peter Sillen) musical documentary portrait Benjamin Smoke.
Where did the idea for Museum Hours come from?
It’s the culmination of some 25 years of thinking about how film connects with other arts and about the interrelationship between fiction and non-fiction. And then there were additional personal experiences – life and death stuff that I felt the need to tackle. More specifically though, it was while looking at 16th-century Bruegel paintings in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum that I recognised parallels to my own documentary filmmaking experience when shooting on the streets – and that somehow led me to a way to bring all of the above together. It occurred to me that a museum guard and docent and a stranded visitor would be the perfect conduits.
What difficulties did you encounter making the film?
Financial difficulties, of course. There’s little support from ‘normal’ sources for a project this unconventional, especially in the US. Practically speaking, shooting on the streets in Vienna in the winter got very cold, and it was sometimes complicated in post-production to interweave the 16mm film and digital that we shot on. Lastly, it was tricky shooting narrative material in a documentary mode, in uncontrolled locations, though it was ultimately very rewarding.
Why should people go to see your film?
It’s a film that gives people room. I set up a simple, very human story and then let that intermingle with documentary material and then incorporated aspects of the essay film. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to decide what the movie is; they truly get to make it their own. (Whatever they do think of it, they won’t have seen anything quite like it). Also, it’s quite down- to-earth and funny. Lastly, for those who’ve known the work of musician Mary Margaret O’Hara (and she does have quite a few discerning fans in the UK) it’s a rare opportunity to see her.
What do you like most about film festivals?
Comradeship with other filmmakers and adventurous programming; seeing films one (sadly) might not have the chance to ever see again. The opportunity to show my work to wide-ranging audiences.
Sometimes they’re too obsessed with celebrities and premieres and competition, and this can make them too dependent on corporate sponsors as well. Also, as a maker, after you’ve just tapped out all of your monetary and emotional assets finishing a film, it can be discouraging if festivals are expensive and exclusive and logistically difficult. And it’s strange to see audiences encouraged to be desperate to see commercial films that are inevitably going to have big theatrical releases anyhow, sometimes within weeks of the festival screenings.
Why are film festivals important?
As distribution options fall away, especially for gutsier, less commercial work, festivals are often the only chance one will have to encounter a film properly, ie on a big screen in a darkened room. Festivals, by default, are one of the last bastions of film culture. And they can be great places to talk to people; other filmmakers and programmers and random audience members too.
What was the last film you saw?
I saw JP Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn’s People’s Park. It’s a feature-length ramble through a massive public park in China, all done in one shot. It demands some patience and then pays off tremendously. It was a delight.
Which filmmakers most inspire you?
What are you working on next?
I have a project that’s been ongoing for 26 years that’s about New York’s 42nd St and Times Square, and I’m doing a portrait of Cape Breton Island that’s shown with a live soundtrack by a band that includes members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fugazi, The Quavers, and Dirty Three.
Interview: Sam Wigley