“Can I add something to your mix?” asks John Cohen after I tell him that I’m attending the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, to write about it. At the time, I was new in town, having just moved there from London, England, and was finding my footing by writing about the place.
“Yes, please,” I reply. After all, this is the man who introduced the great banjo player Roscoe Holcomb to the world, photographed Bob Dylan before anyone else, and was the stills photographer for Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s iconic 1959 film Pull My Daisy. Of course I want his feedback.
“What is documentary?” he says, fixing me with a razor-sharp look.
“I think it’s changing at the moment. In flux,” I answer, thinking about the award-winning Canadian interactive documentary Highrise and the other i-docs I’ve recently sat through, headphones clamped over my ears, clicking around screens to unveil stories with no beginning, middle, or end.
“That film tonight,” he says, referring to Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on the book by Lawrence Wright, “is just so different from my films. It is so objective,” he adds. “I don’t trust objectivity.”
When Cohen was living in New York City in the 1960s, along with Jack Kerouac, the Maysles brothers, and Robert Frank, the idea of authorship and objectivity was being explored and expanded. Cinéma vérité had established limits because it didn’t conceal the presence of a camera, and yet it was understood that trying to erase the director’s presence resulted in another series of formal problems. True objectivity is an elusive beast.
“I want to feel the filmmaker in the film,” Cohen says.
“Yes,” I say and fall silent.
The work of John Cohen is all about experience and has nothing to do with the mess of facts available on our iPhones. But now that we’re firmly in the age of information, documentaries have become more concerned with delivering “content” than with sharing a human response to a subject. And with the rise of i-docs, choice is what it’s all about, allowing viewers to select preprogrammed narratives at the touch of a button. We are all authors now, as we navigate the brave new world of interactive documentaries.
Cohen points to the bluegrass-tinged string trio Scrapyard Lullaby performing on a makeshift stage and says, “I’m going to be playing with them on Sunday night.”
It takes me a second to remember that Cohen is 82 and, with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. Formed in 1958, the Ramblers ignited the old-time music revival by bringing the rural vernacular music of the South to audiences whose knowledge of folk music didn’t stretch beyond the Kingston Trio. Not only did they bring the music of the people back to the people, they also managed to get near-forgotten performers to play live around the country, sharing the stage with the likes of Clarence “Tom” Ashley, the Stanley Brothers, Maybelle Carter, Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, and Roscoe Holcomb.