“I’m frantically making these,” says Jem Cohen. “I’m just figuring out in my mind what these are.”
Cohen, whose documentary works include “Benjamin Smoke” and the upcoming “Museum Hours,” went to Occupy Wall Street on the first day, September 17, armed with a Super-8 camera. “To be honest, I had no expectation that it would last a week, much less take off,” he said.
But Cohen returned two weeks later, this time shooting digital. And a conversation with John Vanco, the VP and general manager of New York’s IFC Center, led to the idea that his footage could quickly become finished pieces that screened for the public.
The result was “NEWSREELS: Reports from Occupy Wall Street by Jem Cohen,” which premiered Oct. 26 at IFC Center as part of its Short Attention Span Cinema program. A total of four will screen at IFC, with a fifth premiering at the DOC NYC festival’s spotlight gala November 8.
Cohen says he hopes the films fall more in the tradition of Jean Vigo and Chris Marker and less in the advocacy films that can often define a movement. “[Occupy] is a very, very complicated situation,” he said. “It’s very hard to lock it in place and it can be deceptive to think you’re doing that. What I’m trying to do is find an angle that is in solidarity with the movement in which I’m a participant, but harkens back to a tradition in documentary that is not advocacy or propaganda.”
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Of course, the Occupy movement is still a work in progress. For Cohen’s part, he says he’s witnessed elements that are “astonishing, hopeful and moving” as well as those that are “confused, disappointing and annoying.” And that, he said, is what he’s tried to document.
“I’m not making pieces that are critical, but I don’t want to whitewash it,” he said. “I don’t want to make it into a perfect package, which it has never been.
“I’m hoping that’s what will make this more interesting to people.”
Here’s an excerpt from Jem Cohen’s Newsreel No. 2, which covers the moment when Occupy Wall Street went global in a Day of Action.