Videos by Cohen ’84 Document City Life and Occupy Wall Street

Jem Cohen '84 (Photo by M. Ackerman)

The Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, 212-423-3200, in New York City will present Jem Cohen: NYC Weights and Measures, a video installation, from Nov. 4 to March 25, 2012 in the museum’s Barbara and E. Robert Goodkind Media Center.

In his 2006 video (6 minutes, 15 seconds long), Jem Cohen ’84 captures the noise and bustle as well as the beauty and tranquility of city life. His work incorporates an intricate soundscape and juxtaposes such moments as a ticker-tape parade, subway riders’ daily commute, and a man pausing for a cigarette.

Cohen says, “Sometimes I just wander around with my camera—I like to see what comes around the corner, and sometimes I just like the corner itself.”

This installation is presented in conjunction with the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951.  Cohen’s choice of subject matter and his approach to filmmaking reveal an intense interest in documenting urban social life. His work is influenced by street photography traditions such as those seen in the work of the Photo League, a group of activist photographers in the 1930s and 1940s New York.

Cohen also has recently worked on documentary shorts about Occupy Wall Street, as reported by Anthony Kaufman on Indie The first of Cohen’s shorts played at New York City’s IFC Center in Greenwich Village as part of its ongoing “Short Attention Span Cinema” program.

Cohen told Indie Wire, “Some of my films are made over spans as long as ten years, but others are done in immediate, visceral response to unfolding events. In regards to Occupy Wall Street, when friends asked me where the newsreels were, I decided to plunge in and make some myself.”

“My own interest lay elsewhere: in a kind of reporting based on direct observation that expresses solidarity without propaganda, while leaving room for experimentation and lyricism. I’m making these films in homage to both an astonishing, homegrown political groundswell and a documentary tradition forged by filmmakers such as Jean Vigo, Joris Ivens, Humphrey Jennings, Agnès Varda, and Chris Marker—to whom my newsreels are dedicated.”

Indie Wire recently posted an excerpt from one of Cohen’s newsreels, which can be seen here.

New York-based filmmaker Cohen mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental genres, often incorporating his own ongoing archive of street footage, portraits, and sound.  His video, Lost Book Found, was screened at The Jewish Museum in 2004, and his work has been featured at various festivals and on television. His feature film Chain premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, was broadcast on Arte and the Sundance Channel, and won an Independent Spirit Award. Benjamin Smoke, co-directed with Peter Sillen, was selected for festivals including Berlin, Edinburgh, Melbourne, London, and Vancouver.

Image from Jem Cohen's video at Jewish Museum

David Low

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: