Jem Cohen


films are next to useless. It’s easy enough to point a camera at a band, wave
it around a little, then mince the footage like hamburger. And the kids seem to
love it. I don’t. I’ll take the concert flick as a bare substitute for a band I
never saw or will never see again, but otherwise, not so much.


Cohen’s movies, as represented by Fugazi’s Instrument and now Building
A Broken Mousetrap
, are different. He seems to have close interpersonal
relationships with his subjects, for one, traditionally a documentary taboo.
And he shoots and edits with some point (often political) in mind, another doc
taboo if you’re going strictly by the book.


But fuck
it, this is rock and roll. And whether you know it or not, there’s no band more
rock than The Ex, a punk back that started out grinding rudimentary chord
changes from an Amsterdam squat and, 25 years later, are a textbook example of
how to evolve without changing a goddamn thing.


Building a Broken
The Ex onstage at The Knitting Factory in NYC during the Republican Convention
of 2004. Footage of the band’s intuitive interplay is cut with candid street
impressions of the city’s atmosphere. Cohen claims he has political intent, but
combining the band’s fervent energy and opinionated slant with bleak urban
landscape isn’t so much a statement as political poetry.


Watching Mousetrap
in a theatre full of non-Ex initiates is an amusing experience. (I was,
I think, the only one in the public screening to raise a hand indicating
knowledge of the band.) The music can be…well, grating is probably not too
judgemental. That leads into two issues I have with the film, which combined
serve to limit its range.


First, it
poorly represents how The Ex can veer into delicate, even traditional beauty,
as when drummer Katherina sings sparse new arrangements of Dutch folk songs.
Only at the end, during the credits, do we see her at the mic, performing an
arrangement of a Konono No 1 tune, which is such a cool thing that I can almost
overlook the omission.


No 1 is a Congo collective that builds songs largely on homemade thumb pianos,
which are crudely amplified, Jamaican style, to skronk out the most raucous
urban folk tunes you’ll ever hear. Congotronics (
is an essential disc.)


disappointing is that Cohen doesn’t make more effort to open the Ex’s lyrical
content to a wider audience. The sound mix is quite good, but it emphasizes the
clashing instruments, of which G. W. Sok’s voice is only one. In Instrument,
Cohen had years of interview footage with Fugai to draw on, but here the band
speaks only from the stage. I admire the simplicity of this approach, but can’t
help but think the film would be more approachable with some sort of


I’m left
wondering who this movie is for? As a valentine to fans, it’s appreciated but
largely redundant; we’ve likely experienced the spectacle for ourselves, and
the film is preaching to the converted. And it seems unlikely that Mousetrap
will do much to convince outsiders of the band’s organic/industrial
beauty, or that such a whirlwind musical force is precisely a product of the
urban environments it decries.


6.7 out of 10


out The Ex. Their website is and good starter discs include: the
Joggers & Smoggers double disc; the late ’90s release Starters Alternators;
or And The Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders, one of two incredible
collaborations with the late avant cellist Tom Cora. And looking at their
website, I’m thrilled about their involvement with the theatre adaptation of Wings
of Desire
and can already predict their sorta collaboration with
Ethiopian sax player Getatchew Mekuria to be my favorite record of the year.)