Pananoia, Politics and Small Minds

Independent filmmaker Jem Cohen shoots movies the old-fashioned way, using a hand-wound 16mm Bolex camera. That alone makes him unique among today’s digitized, computerized crop of indie filmmakers.

But it doesn’t make him a terrorist, except in the small minds of Amtrak police, Homeland Security goons and the paranoid administration of George W. Bush.

On January 7 of this year, Cohen sat in a window seat of an Amtrak train en route to New York to Washington. With his hand-wound Bolex, he filmed the passing scene out the window of the train. Or at least he tried to.

Shortly after leaving New York, the Amtrak ticket taker told Cohen he couldn’t shoot pictures through the window because he was in a “quiet car” and such activity might disturb other passengers.

So Cohen tried to move but was told he couldn’t shoot out the windows of any other car on the train. When the train arrived in Philadelphia, four armed cops escorted him off the train and demanded his film.  He rewound it in the camera and turned it over and got back on the train for the rest of the trip to Washington.

At Washington’s Union Station, the FBI and plainclothes officers for Homeland Security questioned Cohen about his motives. He explained he was an independent filmmaker, gave them the names of some of his movies and noted that he has been filming scenes out of the windows of passenger trains for about 15 years.

“As a filmmaker who does most of my work in a documentary mode and often on the street, my role is to record the world as it is and as it unfolds,” Cohen writes in the spring issue of American Filmmaker magazine. “I build projects from an archive of footage collected in my daily wanderings, and in travels across this country and overseas. I film buildings and passersby, the sky, streets and waterways, the structures that make up our cities, life as it is lived.”

Perhaps in the old days, as in before September 11, 2001, but to the basement level IQs that dominate the White House police state mentality, taking pictures is a threat to national security. When Cohen asked about getting his film back, the thick-necked morons in the black suits told him the film had been turned over the National Terrorism Task Force. That was five months ago and he is still waiting to get his footage back.

“Street shooting is one of the cornerstones of photography itself and it is facing serious new threats, some declared, many not,” Cohen says. “In New York City the MTA apparently intends to forbid all unpermitted photography of and from its trains and subways.”

The National Press Photographers Association has formally protested the MTA ban on photography in subway but officials stick to their paranoid claim that photography is a terrorist tool not an exercise in freedom of speech or the press.

Which is not surprising, given the Bush administration’s callous disregard for freedoms we once thought were protected by the Constitution. The rights-robbing USA Patriot Act, created by overzealous former attorney general John Ashcroft and now up for renewal before Congress, rips the Constitution to shreds and, yet, Bush not only wants it renewed but demands that the police state powers be expanded to allow the FBI and other agencies to wiretap without court order, probe into Americans’ lives without cause and monitor the day-to-day activities of just about everyone.

Even worse are the brain-dead lemmings who support Bush at any cost, singing his praises while he uses the Constitution to wipe his ass and flush it – and what is left of our freedoms – down the toilet.

The widespread abuses allowed by the Patriot Act concern those on both the right and the left. An unlikely coalition that includes the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative activists Bob Barr and Phyllis Schlafly, is working to defeat renewal of the Patriot Act. But Bush, who uses fear of terrorism as a political tool, pushes on, aided by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress who blindly voted for the original act and who will most likely vote to extend it with more power and threats to our freedom.

And as long as our national security is governed by fear and paranoia and not by reality, our tax dollars will be wasted going after innocent filmmakers like Jem Cohen while the real threats to our way of life get away.