French academic and filmmaker Chloé Galibert-Laîné is one of the foremost practitioners of an exciting, emerging form: desktop cinema. Her recent video essays have all been constructed to play out entirely on computer screens. She has investigated subjects such as the work of James Benning, the reenactment of history in film, and a variety of filmmaking techniques. One of her more recent works is 2019’s Watching the Pain of Others, in which she analyzes both Penny Lane‘s documentary The Pain of Others (available to stream here and here) and her own reaction to it.
Watching the Pain of Others is part of the latest edition of Images Festival, Toronto’s venerable independent film and media festival. Like many other film festivals, Images has gone online this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The organization will be live-streaming its films and events, free for anyone anywhere to view, with creators and panelists participating via video chat. Other selections include Sky Hopinka‘s feature debut małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore, Yashaswini Raghunandan’s beautiful That Cloud Never Left, and several video essays on Harun Farocki by Galibert-Laîné’s frequent collaborator Kevin B. Lee. Ahead of the festival, Hyperallergic spoke with Galibert-Laîné about Watching the Pain of Others and working with desktop cinema via email. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hyperallergic: You’ve been making video essays for several years. What drew you to the desktop style?
Chloé Galibert-Laîné: I became interested in desktop documentaries as I went through a sort of crisis of faith regarding the relevance of cinema today. A few years ago, I started feeling that despite my training in the analysis of moving images, I was losing touch with the images that people produce and consume. I became interested in newer cinematic forms that explore the interface between cinema and online media. I saw Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake at the Viennale in 2014, and it made a strong impression on me. It struck me how the desktop documentary form captures the way that I experience reality on an everyday basis: on a screen. That’s how I relate to the world when I’m at home, and also how I keep in touch with my home when I go out in the world.
I realized that this mode of filmmaking has many advantages. There’s something very intuitive about it, it’s young enough that there are few standards to obey (or ignore), it’s incredibly cheap, and it accommodates essayist approaches very well. That said, I feel like we’re getting close to the end of a cycle, and I think I’ll be exploring other modes of filmmaking in the future. I just finished a new video that is partly desktop-based, but also has original filmed images. I’m also excited about staging or animating things on a desktop that are supposedly not possible, so as to expose the limitations of the interfaces — a form of desktop expressionism. I think desktop cinema is relevant to the times we live in, but there are still so many different ways to do it that remain to be explored.
H: A lot of your essays have been focused on film criticism. Were you drawn to The Pain of Others as the subject for a video because it’s already, in its own way, also a desktop film?
CGL: Yes, I think the same thing that attracted me to The Pain of others was also what intrigued me in Transformers: The Premake. These films explore how cinema can show the reality of our online lives. I made Watching the Pain of Others in the context of my doctoral thesis. It’s a research project about works that appropriate online content (videos, photographs, sounds, text) to document online communities. Other examples include the work of Dominic Gagnon, Dan Schoenbrun’s A Self-Induced Hallucination, Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives, and Grégoire Beil’s Roman National.
I call this “Netnographic Cinema,” because I think it’s interesting to relate this new filmmaking trend to older practices of ethnographers, who would take their cameras and travel across the globe to document the social behaviors of people they found “exotic.” I’m questioning the ethics and the politics of that mode of filmmaking, thinking about how image appropriation relates to cultural appropriation, and trying to understand where filmmakers and critics draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t. I made the essay to reflect on Lane’s artistic choices, but also to put myself in the position of having to find my own answers to these questions.
H: How did you start collaborating with Kevin B. Lee on some of your films? What’s the process like when you’re working together?
CGL: I started working with Kevin when my first video essays got published on Fandor, where he was chief editor. It was 2015, and like many others, I was deeply shaken by the terrorist attacks in Paris. This topic entered our ongoing conversations, and we started thinking about a project about online terrorism. This became Bottled Songs, a cross-media investigation that we’re still working on. We’ve made two multi-channel video installations, and are developing a feature film. We’ve also made a couple of essays for International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Kevin and I have broadly overlapping skill sets. It’s not like I do the writing and he does the editing; we’re both able to do the whole process on our own. So it’s not so much about being complementary in what we do as it is about doing our own thing in close dialogue with each other. Typically, we agree on topics that we each want to research, then we report our findings to each other and discuss how to present them. Often, these discussions help us shape the material. This is why Bottled Songs has an epistolary structure. We work at a distance, and exchanging letters is our preferred mode of communication. I think this influence of our process on the final form of the films also shows in the other videos we’ve made together. Re-enacting the Future has a structure with defined chapters that we each worked on separately, and Reading // Binging // Benning takes place alternatively on both our desktops as we take turns narrating our findings.
H: What is the process of building a desktop film? What kind of planning goes into the visuals, and what tools do you use to capture the footage you need? Do you have to do a retake if you don’t feel you’ve moved a mouse icon quite like you wanted, for instance?
CGL: Definitely! A film is entirely scripted before I start recording my desktop, and every move has to be recorded dozens of times before it’s right. The process starts with an extensive research phase, in which I try to document every page I visit and every image I encounter. Then, when I have gathered enough (or more often than not, way too much) material, I move on to production. For me, this starts with writing the first draft of a script that narrates my research process. Then I record my voice and all the audiovisual sequences I need on my desktop (with free Microsoft software, but many other tools are available). I assemble everything on a timeline [in editing software], and usually it doesn’t work. The timing feels off, or my narration is too explanatory, or there’s visual information missing. So I go back and rewrite my narration, revise what should be recorded on the desktop, record my voice again, etc.
That’s what’s both exciting and exhausting about desktop filmmaking: the usual linear workflow, which goes from writing to filming to editing to post-production, is irrelevant. You can always go back to your desktop to “film” something differently, and as you do it, you’ll realize that interfaces have changed, or that algorithms now show you different results for a search than they did a month earlier. This can throw you into a new rabbit hole of research.
H: In the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic, the subject matter of both The Pain of Others and your own film is obviously highly relevant. Have you seen anything like what’s in these films in the way people communicate about the virus online?
CGL: First, we should acknowledge that the existence of COVID-19 isn’t in doubt like Morgellons, the disease the women in The Pain of Others claim to have. This makes a huge difference, as the main concern of the self-identified “Morgies” is to be believed. What I do see, which reminds me of some things I observed while researching Lane’s film, is that people use social media to share tips about how to cope with the situation. In The Pain of Others, several women explain how they diagnose and treat themselves to their YouTube audiences. Today you see people exchanging tips on making face masks at home, or offering minute descriptions of COVID-19 symptoms.
This illustrates the best and the worst of the internet — community spirit and mutual aid, but also potentially dangerous forms of misinformation, or in this case, self-medication. But before we get judgmental, I think we should question the circumstances that made them, and all of us, rely so much on online media. In the same way that the women in Lane’s film may not have turned to YouTube if they had been prescribed proper treatments by doctors, we wouldn’t find ourselves watching YouTube tutorials for how to make masks, randomly diagnosing each other via video conference, or trying out unverified treatments for COVID-19 if there were enough real masks and tests available, and steady funding for hospitals and medical research.
H: Another facet of the pandemic is that now everyone is encountering everyone else through desktops. A lot of your work contains some instruction on media literacy. Is there anything you think people might find useful when navigating the world this way?
CGL: As an online spectator, so to speak, I’m totally fascinated by what is going on. I just watched the Saturday Night Live Zoom sketch, and I am excited to see all the different audiovisual forms and practices that we’re now quickly inventing to maintain some sort of social life in these difficult circumstances. I’m curious to see what films will come out of this period of isolation. But as a filmmaker, I don’t feel like I can respond to the situation just yet. It’s a confusing time, and there are so many aspects of it that I’m not able to make sense of for now. I need time and distance to think; emergency situations paralyze me.
A story comes to my mind, though. I once met an ISIS scholar who told me that he never worked from home. When he arrived at his office in the morning, he’d put on a white coat, sit down at his laptop, and start watching horrific videos. At the end of the day, he’d take off the coat, put it back on his chair, and goes back home to his safe space. Now, with the confinement, we are all required to find spaces inside our homes for every aspect of our lives, including the most stressful. And it certainly doesn’t help that our work meetings, our chats with friends, and our therapy sessions all take place on the screens of the same devices, often through the same applications, framed by the same interfaces. For the researcher, the most important thing was not that he had a coat to wear, but that he could take it off in the evening. Similarly, I think it’s crucial for all of us to find strategies to compartmentalize — not to remain productive, but to make sure that we keep spaces in our homes that feel somewhat safe.
Watching the Pain of Others is part of Images Festival, running online April 16 through April 22. The main program was organized by Steffanie Ling, Aaron Moore, and Karina Iskandarsjah.