INSTRUMENT a film by JEM COHEN & FUGAZI. 1999. USA. 117 min. SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL. A ragged and hypnotizing collage of the Washington DC punk band by a fiercely independent filmmaker.


This month, Le Cinéma Club presents the platform’s third annual Summer Music Festival, featuring films that revel in the electric power of live music. Filmed over 11 years and made in full collaboration with the band (who co-edited and offered extensive soundtrack materials) Jem Cohen’s Instrument is a fiery and hypnotizing account of Washington DC punk band Fugazi.


The two-hour runtime slips between footage of Fugazi performing not only at DIY-venues and rock clubs, but a White House anti-war rally, an anti-apartheid benefit, and a D.C. prison; as well as recording at Inner Ear Studio and a house in Connecticut. It also includes extensive audience portraits and candid interviews with fans and non-fans alike. Instrument emerges as an honest portrait of the band and the community that formed around them. Both Cohen and Fugazi pointedly rejected the music-video industry, and their film eschews the pyrotechnics that emblematized corporate music-dom as seen on MTV throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.


The mix of mediums — Super 8, 16mm, video — and aesthetic flourishes such as slow shutter blurs and punchy intertitles connects Instrument to the avant-garde tradition, but the film also reflects classic performance documents such as Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Like Instrument, these are films that combine experimental verve with generous audience footage to encapsulate the shared attitude of artists and their community. If punk is about movement, as the band declares early on, then Instrument is certainly punk.




Cohen kindly sent this statement about the film:


Instrument still feels like the film the band and I wanted and struggled to make. It’s ragged – or at least viscerally handmade – because we were making do with what we had, always, and never wanted either a promotional film or traditional documentary. Early on, we considered watching a bunch of music documentaries for guidance but decided against it. The film would have to carve its own path or dig its own ditch, but without templates. (Dub music, with its deconstructions and half-buried grooves did serve as a guide of sorts…) Instrument became a collage, both because we were inventing as we went and because life and memory roll out that way. We made it to please and challenge ourselves and didn’t intend it to be all-encompassing or conclusive. In other words, I wasn’t trying to tell the “story” of some band, I was trying to collaborate with something I loved and to see if a film could in itself constitute a kind of music. We never guessed it would take so long to finish. When I watch it now I find it funny and sexy and heavy at times and am relieved that the editing still feels surprisingly alive. And I still love the sonics these people threw down and their truly autonomous navigation of both the musical and literal landscape. As the years go by I’m more and more thankful – for the invaluable contributions of those who shot indispensable “archival” footage, for the editing help I got from my friend Davey Frankel, for all the people who made up their own minds about this band, and for all who still think filmmaking is an open field rather than a means of creating publicity or “content.”


Lastly, yes, the film is long, but it was made over a full decade, covering a band that covered a lot of ground. So, please do us and yourselves a favor and watch as big as possible in a darkened room with good sound and minimal interruption.




Jem Cohen is an independent filmmaker. He has worked extensively with musicians including Patti Smith, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, R.E.M., Elliott Smith, Jonathan Richman, Xylouris White, DJ Rupture, and many others. He’s had retrospectives at Harvard Film Archive, Oberhausen, and London’s Whitechapel Gallery. His films are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and selections are available on his Vimeo. In 2009, he wrote a prescient article for Vertigo Magazine titled The Double {+} Anchor: Notes Towards a Common Cause arguing for new approaches to sustainability in the digital landscape.


Text written by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer.