Instrument

Documentary by Fugazi and Jem Cohen

When Fugazi came shining onto the scene in the late eighties, a bright beacon of non-violent fucking-shit-up, political (not "correct" but conscious) and hardcore, no one could have predicted just how great would be their contribution to musical and political possibility.

I mean, here was a band playing unmitigated hardcore that would not allow--would not stand for--violence in any form, including "thrashing" or "slam-dancing," at its shows. Not "standing for" violence works here in both senses, neither tolerating nor allowing themselves to be another symbol of violence, even if it is... dancing.

Of course, many fans have been dismayed over the years by what seemed to be a kind of holier-than-thou behavior on the part of the band, stopping the show and refusing to play further until the "violence" stopped.

But somehow Fugazi (and Jem Cohen)'s film Instrument makes it an unquestionable good rather than an idea you might suspect is sometimes held onto too rigorously. Fugazi might say: "To those of you who think aggression is natural, a normal human 'release,' think again. We have the courage to see violence for what it is, say it out loud, declare it wrong, and have no part of it." They are chipping away, and always have been, at our assumptions about what is appropriate or natural. Instrument reminds us that the stance at their shows about what some call dancing has to do with larger, and more important concerns. It's not that Fugazi wishes they had different fans than they do, or a different kind of fan, or that they want to control their scene, but that they are doing their part to effect a change in thinking and behavior that has ramifications outside of music venues.

Or so I see it, viewing Instrument. It is dangerous, of course, to make declarations about what other people "think"--so let it be known that these are my thoughts about Fugazi and may indeed not be theirs....

But Instrument is striking for multiple reasons. One--it is simply beautiful to look at and undergo. Two--it is tremendously, unrelentingly, human. No bright-light celebrity rockstars need apply. Three--the fans play a large role in this film-about-a-band.

One--Jem Cohen's gritty and arty hand-held filming, interlaced with more straightforward shooting techniques, captures moments of the everyday that are, well, mundane, and then sees also what is exceptional in that. The technique of interlacing show footage, interview, travel, recording, living--all this together--shows what it takes to make a document of a life--or four to twelve lives--of a band on the road. These various scene-styles are broken into intervals by the text of selected Fugazi lyrics. The film is a full two hours long, and is worth sitting through more than once--it offers both the pleasure of remembering what is so great about Fugazi and the surprise of what wouldn't be expected of such a film.

Two--Human. Their unwillingness to show their "real" lives to the camera and their simultaneous unwillingness to seem rehearsed speak volumes about the problem of being followed by a camera in order to be "documented." And the footage from a high school student-run community-access talk show is both painful (in its awkwardness) and inspiring (because it exists).

And then, as if we thought Fugazi were all politics and strident messaging, we are reminded that they are men with a sense of humor. One night, as Guy Picciotto plots to kill George Burns before his 100th birthday bash, Ian MacKaye reminds him that the camera is still on....

Three--the footage of fan's faces, both the silent examinations of their expressions while waiting in line for the show and the interviews wherein fans express opinions (pro and con) about Fugazi, their music, politics, and musical and political development, remind us why the band and its documentary exist: all this stuff matters to people.

Many of these fans do not like the non-violence requirement. Many of them do not like the turn Fugazi has taken musically in some recent albums (about which I've written positively in h2so4 numerous times). All of them have something to say, and are given the space to say it, whether in doing so they are articulate, coherent, positive... or not. Fugazi is nothing without these voices, and they know it. One suspects they would not have it otherwise.

Jill Stauffer