Badger Career Chat: Jason Cohen ’94, Documentary Filmmaker

In 2014, UW alumnus Jason Cohen’s film Facing Fear was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. The film tells the story of a gay teen being brutally beaten, and the journey to forgiveness that the victim and his attacker make together 25 years later. Cohen’s time at UW–Madison was just the beginning of his own journey to discover the type of stories he wanted to tell.

Jason Cohen '94
In 2001, the UW-Madison School of Journalism honored Cohen with the Ralph O. Nafziger Award for distinguished achievement by an alumnus/na within 10 years of graduation.
How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
I lived in Vilas Hall — I majored in journalism and communication arts. I wrote for The Daily Cardinal and worked at the NBC affiliate in Madison while I was in college. After graduating, I decided I didn’t necessarily want to go into broadcast journalism, and I liked film, so the mixture of those really is documentary, or long-form storytelling.

I started freelancing in New York, then moved to San Francisco, where I did some sound work and camera work. I ended up meeting [Academy Award-winning director] Steven Okazaki and worked with him on the documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, which was basically just the two of us, out on the streets, following five heroin addicts for two years. It was the first big documentary I really worked on.

I’ve been fortunate to travel around the world on different types of shoots: wildlife, adventure sports, social issues, some commercial work. It’s been a hodgepodge, really. And I love it all. I’d never give it up. I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff.

How did your experience at the UW affect your life?
I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and going to Madison expanded my world through exposure to new people, through classes. I took as many classes as I could outside my major about things I knew nothing about. I loved being so hands-on in academics. We produced television and radio shows; I spent a whole semester working on a documentary in Lew Friedland’s class.

And now I feel so lucky that today, I can go out and promote my film as a Badger, as an ambassador of UW-Madison.

How do you stay connected to UW-Madison?
I’m still really close with a group of friends from school. They’re my closest friends, my lifelong friends, and we’re as close today as we were then. Other friends who went to other colleges don’t have those same kinds of relationships. It’s a bond that you can’t explain … that indescribable Madison thing.

I also stayed in touch with my TAs, including Dave Black, who helped start WSUM. I appreciate what he’s done for student radio. When I was in school, I was a DJ at WLHA in the basement of the Lakeshore dorms. I can’t remember the wattage, but it did not make it to the other side of campus, where I lived [laughs]. I’d ride my bike down there and spin records every Sunday morning by myself. The phone would ring once or twice — a wrong number. Not a lot of people listening, but I was on air and playing the records I liked. Great memories.