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Jem Cohen was raised in the Washington area and is probably best known for Instrument, his impressionistic documentary about D.C.’s Fugazi. Two members of that hibernating band, Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye, are in the credits for Cohen’s latest film, which stars Mira Billotte, late of local alt-rock trio Quix*o*tic. Yet the film, Chain, isn’t rooted in Washington. In fact, it isn’t rooted at all.
Set in shopping malls, fast-food outlets, and airport hotels, Chain is a film “about the erasure of regional character and regional culture, and the way that it all gets subsumed into corporate entertainment ideas and corporate architecture,” says Cohen, 43. Midway through a series of projects in Europe, the New York–based filmmaker is speaking by phone from Amsterdam. But by the logic of Chain, he could be anywhere.
The movie, a mix of impassive documentary and laconic fiction, interjects two women into scenes shot throughout North America and Europe. “I seamed these landscapes and places together really quite carefully,” Cohen says. “I’m going shot to shot, side to side, from New Jersey to Atlanta to Vancouver to Berlin, and you really can never tell where you are. Every once in a while—if you knew a place really well—you might recognize Berlin. But for the most part, it’s pretty scary how indistinguishable all the places are.”
Cohen collected footage for years and didn’t begin to shape it until well into the process. “I generally don’t shoot with a set knowledge of what I’m doing,” he explains. “I worked on Instrument for four or five years before I really sat down with the band and we decided we had the stuff to start a documentary. For the first years, I was just shooting because it’s what I like to do. I’d say that’s a pretty consistent thread through my projects.”
Ultimately, Cohen shaped the footage into a film with two characters, played by Billotte and Miho Nikaido, a Japanese actress whom Cohen first saw in a lubricious 1992 film, Tokyo Decadence. Billotte is a slacker who’s marooned in an unidentified mall, where she hangs out, scavenges, and occasionally picks up under-the-counter work; Nikaido is a Japanese corporate exec who travels the world researching theme parks. Cohen has never been to Japan, but he did extensive research, basing his character’s anonymous company on one that decided to move from heavy industry to family entertainment.
When the movie screens Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, it will be introduced by Picciotto, who contributed “additional music sounds” to the soundtrack. Picciotto and MacKaye are also listed as executive producers—which Cohen calls “kind of a joke, because just the idea of them being executives is funny. Basically, those are the two guys I went to when I wanted to have people look at rough cuts, and bounce ideas off them, and show them script stuff.”
Unlike Instrument, for which Cohen used “every kind of film and video stock known to man,” Chain has a consistent look. “It’s actually a little bit formal, compared to a lot of the other stuff I’ve done. I shot in 16 mm, and mostly with pretty fine-grained films, and so I couldn’t just pilfer the archives.”
The result is a movie whose diffident beauty may bewilder viewers used to mainstream Hollywood fare. “I was trying to cross back and forth between documentary and narrative so you often would lose track of which you were in,” Cohen says. Yet, he notes, “there’s nothing particularly highfalutin about the concept. My feeling is that it’s a movie about the world we’re all living in.” —Mark Jenkins