INTERVIEW – FORENSICKNESS

In Forensickness, a voice-over in the first-person singular describes the making of the film. Was the process really as the voice describes? Could you tell us about the writing of the film?

The production process was much more labyrinthine, more trial and error, than my voice-over suggests. Over the course of my research I accumulated a lot more material than I feature in the film. The writing process, which lasted six months, essentially involved sorting through all that material and ordering it in such a way as to produce a coherent narrative. But the overall trajectory of the narrative, from the discovery of Chris Kennedy’s film to the making of the large “detective wall”, stems from my own research based on Watching the Detectives.

Forensickness further extends the mise en abyme of Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives, by making the latter film, which investigates the investigators, in turn the subject of an investigation. Yet you also draw on the work of Witold Gombrowicz, whose novel Cosmos seems to have contributed to your desire to examine the processes of hermeneutics. Why did you choose to associate these two works?

 I wanted to reflect on this very intense, almost obsessive way of scrutinising images and searching for meaning in them that is typical of the discussions between the Boston Redditors. But I really struggled to find a right way to express myself on the subject, because it is a relation to images that is quite foreign to me. Then I remembered Cosmos, a novel I adore, in which the narrator has a completely obsessional relationship to his surroundings. He constantly attempts to give meaning to everything around him, be it a crack in the ceiling, the form of a tree, or a nail hammered askew. Re-reading the novel helped me firstly to ease into, although only in a fictional way, the kind of subjectivity I was looking to grasp. Later, it provided me with a model for writing my own narrative, into which I even included some ten lines from the novel.

 

You question the documentary form and its realist pretensions by working with autofiction, which blurs the line between the real and the imaginary. Could you tell us more about this choice?

 I think it was precisely because the relation to images I was trying to capture was unfamiliar to me that I needed to introduce fiction into my story. This was the most demanding aspect of the film: the more I distanced myself from my personal experience, the more my narration rang hollow. But it seemed interesting to reflect on this, because the link between image and truth is a recurring question in my work. Why is a discourse that uses images accepted as true? It seemed to me that autofiction would enable me to explore this question, by destabilising my authority as a researcher within the film.

 

In Watching the Detectives, the silence exacerbates the hypnotic effect of the flow of images and leaves the viewer to their own dizzy interpretation. In Forensickness, however, the voice-overs and musical motif play an important role in setting a light, humoristic tone which counterbalances the seriousness of the themes addressed. How did you develop them?

There’s humour in Chris Kennedy’s film too! It was precisely one of the things that unsettled me the most in the beginning: despite the painful subject matter, the film is funny. Whilst working on another project, I looked at a lot of terrorist propaganda, and I’ve made several very serious films on the subject. But in this case, as I wasn’t looking directly at the Boston attacks but rather at the messages sent between Redditors, a change of tone was necessary. With Forensickness, I experimented with a writing mechanism that was new to me: I began to include certain ideas in the film simply because I found them funny, without knowing where they would lead me. But I chose to trust this intuition, and it was only right at the end of the process that I realised that this “fun factor” that I had obeyed was also no doubt in part what had motivated the amateur detectives in Boston. Once I had understood that, I was able to finish the film. In drawing on my personal experience, I finally found a way to throw myself into the work of the Redditors.

 

Forensickness is above all a montage film for which you produced only a few unassuming images. Could you tell us about the production process? What was your budget and what were your tools?

For several years now, my work has been funded by academic institutions, and it is from these partnerships that I earn my living. But Forensickness, like my previous films, was produced without a production budget. It was made using my laptop, a webcam, a printer, a wall and adhesive tape. I worked completely alone, except for the contributions of some volunteers who agreed to record on their phones messages posted by the Redditors and then send me the audio files via instant messaging. It was extremely low-tech as a production method, but I think it fits well with the subject of the film. This is something that comes up in Watching the Detectives: the analyses by Redditors are discredited because they are illustrated with arrows and circles drawn using Paint. There is a sort of coherence in questioning the authoritative effect produced by certain visual technologies of varying sophistication within a poor-quality film apparatus.

 

Your films, which you call video essays, are an integral part of your academic research. In addition, they engage with the films of others. You took The Pain of Others by Penny Lane, for instance, as a starting point for making Watching the Pain of Others. What is the relation between research and creation in your practice?

Forensickness was produced as part of my doctoral thesis that I began in 2016 within the SACRe programme at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. I am interested in films made using media found on the internet and which give an insight into different online communities to which the filmmakers do not generally belong. I try to connect this practice to the history of ethnographic cinema through critical reflection. I don’t seek to condemn this way of making films, but rather to reflect on the political and ethical questions that the works raise, and to observe the formal strategies developed by the filmmakers to avoid the traps of cultural appropriation and the exoticisation of Internet users. Making my own films in the context of this research forces me to confront the same difficulties that meet the filmmakers whose works I study. It enables me to appreciate their creative choices with generosity and empathy, and to explore other possible ways of producing this type of film.

 

You depict online browsing and the search windows on a computer desktop and use visual material specific to the realm of the Internet (Youtube, social networks, etc.) Could you tell us more about your research on the relation between cinema and images from web-based practices, and specifically what is known as Desktop Cinema?

I began to take an interest in the “desktop documentary” format after seeing Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: the Premake at the 2014 Viennale. I found its way of documentary making interesting because it reflects the world as I experience it on a daily basis: through my computer screen. Reworking images from the Internet through cinema allows me to look at them differently, to better understand how they function and how they affect us. In 1991, just before his death, Serge Daney announced: “The time has come to use cinema to question other images, and vice versa.” It was a great initiative and is, I believe, today more relevant than ever.

 

Interviewed by Claire Lasolle