By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
The video essay format is one of the most intriguing and dynamic forms of film criticism today. This unique way of establishing links and dialogues with different films or bodies of work, allows the viewer a further analysis and discovery, something that goes beyond the written text or other forms of criticism. Last year, “Watching the Pain of Others”, reclaimed this intrinsic relation between video essay and film via an intimate, exhaustive and very personal view of the documentary “The Pain of Others” by filmmaker Penny Lane. We interviewed Chloé Galibert-Laîné, author of the video essay and one of the most remarkable practitioners of the format working today, about her work in this outstanding essay, her methods of working, and her different projects.
Desistfilm: As a film scholar, what made you interested in the format of video essay? How did you become acquainted with this kind of work?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: I discovered the world of video essays and videographic research during a research trip at the University of Vienna in 2014. At the time I was conducting written academic research and making films on the side; these were two completely disconnected aspects of my life. Then I attended a video essay workshop taught by Michael Baute, a filmmaker and video essayist from Berlin, and it was sort of a revelation: it made me realize that I could integrate my filmmaking and editing practices as part of my research. His introduction to the form gave me the desire and provided the context for me to make a first video essay, and then more.
Desistfilm: You have developed a very particular style. How do you approach the making of your video essays? What’s the process you go about when making one?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: I don’t have a fixed process – not anymore. The first video essays I made were for the U.S. streaming platform Fandor, and for those I had a very straightforward process: picking a film or a corpus of films, choosing an angle, writing a script, recording my voice, and then finding images to match my script. But since I stopped working with Fandor I ventured into a more experimental approach to the genre. Now I like to think that every new video comes with its specific challenges and requires a different approach. It’s much more exciting! Last year I made a video essay about smartphone navigation and digital “flânerie” inspired by a text by Walter Benjamin, that appropriated images from a 1969 film by Robert Benayoun. In that case I started with researching the theme of digital navigation; I didn’t know what form my video would take yet. It was only when I discovered Benayoun’s film (which tells the story of a time-travelling “flâneur” and weaves together images shot in Paris in the 1920s and in 1968) that I started to envision how to go about the making of my video essay: I went out to film original footage in the Paris of 2018 to complement Benayoun’s images, and edited these filmed images with screen recordings from my desktop and my phone.
For this video about Penny Lane’s The Pain of Others, it was a very different process, because it was first developed as a live performance. I had such a disturbing and powerful experience watching that film; I wanted to find a way to share and discuss this experience with other people. So I designed a collaborative live performance where participants would be given little pieces of paper with one sentence written on each, as well as a number: the numbers indicated the order in which they were invited to read their sentence out loud. Meanwhile I was seated behind the audience, silently navigating a desktop which was projected onto a screen in front of them, opening windows and playing clips from the film, performing a form of advanced PowerPoint presentation. It was as if we were collectively performing an awkwardly personal conference about The Pain of Others. The text was very much about virality and infection, and about how our bodies suffer from the media we consume; in making participants speak my words and inhabit my body for a moment, I tried to design a situation for them to reflect upon their own spectatorial mechanisms, and think about how they relate to each other’s suffering. I would say that about 50% of the script of that original performance ended up in the video version.
Desistfilm: Watching The Pain of Others was, for me, the most important video essay made in 2018. Rarely have we seen the intimate relationship between a film critic and her subject matter explored in such depth. Can you tell us about the analogous process of discovering things about yourself and discovering things about the women in Penny Lane’s documentary?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: Yes, making this video was a very personal process, and very challenging for that same reason. I did learn quite a few things about myself in the process. The most interesting was perhaps to witness the evolution of my relationship to Morgellons patients as I dived further into their online world. Lane’s film is very much about identification and empathy. It asks: what is the limit of empathy? When do you start to feel like a person is too different from you for you to have sympathetic feelings for her? Conversely, does empathy have the power to force you to realize that you are not so different from a person with whom you wished you had nothing in common? To realize that it wouldn’t take much for me to fall over the edge of rationality and let my body be infected by the beliefs of “Morgies” was disturbing and eye-opening.
But more importantly I hope that viewers can learn things about themselves too! It wasn’t my main goal to expose myself, nor to demonstrate the uniqueness of or my experience. Quite the opposite: from the start the objective was that spectators should be able to project themselves into my viewing experience, and thus gain a critical awareness of their own spectatorial mechanisms. In that sense I am really using the first person as a methodological tool for triggering reflexive thinking. When I say “I” in the video, it isn’t so much about “Chloé Galibert-Laîné” as a biographical entity as it is about whoever recognize herself in that “I”. Adopting the first-person is a way to guide the viewer into thinking reflexively and critically about her own act of watching. This also explains why I appear on screen: it offers the possibility for viewers, like you, to reflect upon your relationship to me, as a not-so-reliable narrator, and as a (female) image. Do you feel empathy for me, and why? Do you respond the same way to the image of a woman talking about her own body depending on whether you identify her as an online vlogger, a film scholar, an acclaimed filmmaker or a conspiracy theorist? How does the interface in which this woman’s image is embedded (YouTube, Vimeo, a movie screen, an academic journal) modify your affective capacity to empathize with her?
Desistfilm: Empathy, I think, it’s a key word; the way you explore and provoke empathy throughout your film makes it feel at times like a personal diary. You could have simply analyzed the problem buy you decided to make it your own, to become part of it.
The work of layers in Watching The Pain of Others is something that is also interesting to me: the layers of the different themes you explore, but also the layers of windows and digital interfaces that are presented. Why do you think it was important to show the flow of digital information that feeds into your research?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: Generally speaking, I am interested in finding ways to depict the research process in as transparent a way as possible. Too often research stories focus on final results or findings; but that’s not how it’s done! In actuality research involves a lot of wandering – a lot of intellectually “flânerie” if you like – and in many cases the wandering is much more interesting and rich than the results. At least it narrative terms: if you think as a storyteller, there are many more interesting events to depict along the research process, with its false tracks, its frustrations and its epiphanies, than in the sole presentation of research findings.
In the case of Watching The Pain of Others, most of the research happened online: to share my research process, I had to design a strategy to document my online searches in a way that is intelligible and as truthful as possible. The “desktop documentary” approach provides just that: recording my screen allows me to contextualize my research, to show where information come from and how the knowledge that I share has been produced. It is part of any good researcher’s ethos to share her sources and references, so that her reader can go back to the original material and critique her interpretations; recording my desktop is my way to adapt that ethos to my practice of online videographic research.
Desistfilm: The question of discourse is also something important in your video essays. In Watching The Pain of Others, you explore how people talk about their health but also how they share their beliefs about conspiracy theories, flat earth… because of this need of having a voice. I know you’re also researching Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives, which explores similar questions of online conspiracy and mob mentality. What are your main interests behind these issues?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: It is fascinating for me to observe how a given community produces and assesses knowledge. This probably relates to my interest in video essays and videographic scholarship: as a researcher, as soon as you step outside of the realm of written scholarship, you constantly have to ask yourself – and to explain to your peers – why what you do should be consider “research”, what sort of “knowledge” it produces, and according to what criteria your findings are “valid”. So this is a question that I have been exploring over the last years, inspired by the work of more experienced videographic researchers such as Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley or Jason Mittell: how do you produce knowledge by audiovisual means, especially in the context of online media research?
But then, I look at how online social interactions have evolved over time, and I see that other communities – YouTubers, redditors – have also been developing their own framework for assessing producing and assessing knowledge, on bases that might seem eccentric and ridiculous to some traditional researchers, but appear to satisfy the needs of the community. And I wonder: how do these negotiations about what should be considered a valuable contribution in the world, say, of Morgellons patients, relate to the way other communities, including in academia, appreciate what constitutes “knowledge”?
So this is why films like The Pain of Others and Watching the Detectives are so interesting to me, because they are somehow at the crossroad between my two main current interests: they are audiovisual explorations of digital, alternative modes of knowledge production. How does the knowledge they produce, by purely cinematic means, relate to the processes of knowledge production they depict? This is what I investigate in my ongoing PhD dissertation: I examine the way ethnographic films have been valued and criticized by the academic community to propose a new framework for understanding the knowledge that these “netnographic films” produce about online communities and online social interactions.
Desistfilm: In your video, you show how Penny Lane chose the order of the sequences in her film in order for audience to be more perceptive or less judgmental of the protagonists. How did you deal with the dissemination of information in your own video essay, in a way that allowed you to convey what you really were trying to say?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: You mean, how did I ensure that my spectators wouldn’t be convinced that they have Morgellons by the end of my film? (laughs) Well, the question was definitely on my mind as I was making the video, but I don’t know if I found a satisfying answer. I definitely tried to be responsible when I chose in what orders things should be presented: I didn’t want to show the conspiracy stuff too early in order not to disqualify the protagonists at the outset. In parallel, I didn’t want to get too subjective in my analysis at the beginning, because I wanted the viewers to get used to trusting my voice and my narrative authority before I started showing Morgellons-like wounds on my body (laughs).
But to the more serious question of whether or not there is a danger that my video could convince people that Morgellons is a real disease – I didn’t think that was a real possibility until a fellow researcher gave me exactly this feedback. She said that she hadn’t felt contaminated by Lane’s original film because she could distance herself from the protagonists, but that my video really made her doubt the fakeness of the disease, because it was much harder for her to distance herself from someone like me – that is, someone like herself. But for me, as for Penny Lane I think, it was never so much about debating whether or not the disease is real. Neither she nor I, nor the protagonists of the film really, pretend to have a scientific understanding of the physical symptoms that some people identify as “Morgellons”. It is about exploring what this disease stands for, for the individuals who say they suffer from it, and for all of us as a society.
Desistfilm: Has Penny Lane seen your work? How did she react to it?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné : Yes, she and David Schwartz screened it as part of her first-ever complete retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in April. The first time she watched it, she wrote me: “I feel seen”; for me that was not only a great compliment, but a perfect formulation of everything this film is about.
Desistfilm: We’ve been researching your website and we were interested in this other project: A Portrait of the Spectator as a Cannibal, talking about the memories of cinemagoers. How are you approaching this, because this is a work in progress, right?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: Well, there is a short and a very long answer to that question. To keep it short, it is a research project on which I have been working on-and-off since 2015. The overall objective of the project is to explore empirically how cinema spectators reinvent the films they see, as they progressively incorporate their images, sounds and stories into their own life narratives. Over time I have explored different methods and formats to present that research: I have written an entire dissertation based on sociological interviews with non-expert cinemagoers from my hometown in the North of France; explored the writings of various legendary cinephiles (especially Serge Daney and Jonathan Rosenbaum) in several essays, lectures and videos (for example https://vimeo.com/246933055); I have also been exploring some of my own memories in a short series of exploratory video essays. To everybody I would ask: how do the films you see feed you, what do you use them for?
Now, this project has somehow became secondary in my work. I came to realize that it had grown from a need to diagnose the importance of cinema today: it’s as if, as a young film scholar, I wanted to convince myself that my research topic was relevant to society. But the truth is that, from a sociological perspective, it is not (laughs). If anything, these interviews I conducted confirmed that people don’t use film memories as navigational devices through life as much as they used to in the past (as has been studied by various researchers, most prominently Annette Kuhn). This realization led to two developments on my part: as a researcher, I started to shift from studying film reception to researching online media practices; and as a filmmaker, I understood that I shouldn’t wait for other people to explain to me why cinema is relevant or important, I had to find my own answer for that… Today I think of my current project about “netnographic cinema” as a way to formulate my own answer to the question I was asking to my interviewees four years ago. In a way I shuffled the terms of my research equation: I used to study the social uses of cinema; now I use cinema to study the social uses of online media.
This being said, I don’t think I’m quite done researching how people remember films and media. I’m curious to see what form the next iteration of “A Portrait of the Spectator as a Cannibal” will take, when I’m done with my current projects…
Desistfilm: So, what other things are you working on right now?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: I am mainly working on my PhD dissertation, which is part text and part video. And related to the dissertation, I am also working on a feature-length desktop documentary, in collaboration with Kevin B. Lee. We call it Bottled Songs, and it is a series of video letters documenting our investigations of online media related to the audiovisual propaganda produced by the terrorist organization Islamic State. Two chapters from the project have already been presented publicly as a video installation, and we’re working very hard to try to finish the whole film within the coming year.
You can watch the video essay “Watching The Pain of Others” here: