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Filmgoers who are both Fugazi fans and Shakespeare buffs may notice a similarity between Instrument, the impressionistic documentary about Washington’s punk stalwarts, and Michael Almereyda’s new, modern-day film of Hamlet: Both feature lyrical shots of jet airplanes and their vapor trails.
“It is a bit of an obsession,” laughs Jem Cohen, who photographed the similar scenes for both movies. “It hadn’t occurred to me. But it’s true.”
A D.C. native now based in New York, Cohen directed Instrument but played a lesser role in making Almereyda’s Manhattanized version of Aki Kaurismaki’s 1987 Hamlet Goes Business. “Michael just knew that I shoot on the street and that I kind of collect images,” explains Cohen. “So we went out and shot way before the movie was actually made. He was concerned about the changing seasons, so he asked me if I would go and shoot some cityscapes in the winter before he actually started shooting.”
Cohen is credited as Hamlet’s second-unit director, although what he did doesn’t fit the customary definition of the job, which involves shooting less important scenes while principal production is underway. “I have to say there isn’t much of a story here,” Cohen chuckles, “because I only have a very small amount of footage in the film. It’s really just a few exteriors. I’m glad he used them, I’m glad he was happy with them. But it’s a real small part of the project.”
Still, Cohen’s style suited Almereyda’s arty, low-tech project. Both Cohen’s footage and the principal photography, for example, were done in Super-16 rather than 35mm. “I liked the way it looked,” says Cohen of the finished product. “I think we were lucky that it all meshed together pretty well.”
Although he came to prominence shooting music videos, notably for R.E.M., Cohen is not looking for more commercial projects. “I don’t really do work for hire very often,” he says. “I would only be interested in very specific cases. When people ask me if I want to direct a Nike ad or whatever, I just say no. But in this case, I thought [Almereyda] had some interesting ideas, and I thought a lot of them were realized in the film.
“My hands are totally full trying to squeak my little movies out there,” Cohen adds. “And also trying to do it in a direction that’s completely different from big movie direction.”
While Instrument continues to show at art houses and rock clubs, and on Fugazi fans’ VCRs—the video has sold more than 16,000 copies—Cohen is preparing to release a new documentary, Benjamin Smoke, which he co-directed. “It’s a portrait of an underground musician from Atlanta, who’s kind of the antithesis of Fugazi,” the filmmaker notes. “A really amazing, interesting character.”
For Cohen, punk offers both a subject and a model for independent artistry. “I do it a little bit like Fugazi does it,” he says of his career. “Although Fugazi isn’t as dependent on grants as I am,” he laughs. “I don’t make a lot of money and I try to make sure that I don’t need a lot of money to do it. Every once in a while I get a European TV sale on one of my experimental films, and I’m on the road a lot, showing at universities and galleries.”
Instrument’s helped, he says. “Instrument’s been good to me.”