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Criticism Itself: An Interview with Video Essayist Kevin B. Lee

When I first started following Kevin B. Lee, he was Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay and Fandor’s Chief Video Essayist. Every year, for the Oscar season, he used to produce smart and funny videos reviewing different award categories, the nominees, their industry history plus chances to win. At the end of 2016, he moved to Europe as the first guest of the Harun Farocki residency and, of course, summed up his experience in Berlin with yet another video essay. For the past two years, he has been teaching Crossmedia Publishing at Stuttgart’s Merz Akademie, traveling the world to lecture on desktop documentaries and social media, mentoring aspiring film critics and audiovisual creators. In 2018, he and now-regular collaborator Chloé Galibert-Laîné won Sundance Institute’s Art of Nonfiction grant for a full-length project looking into the Islamic State and its documentary legacy.

Kevin no longer produces those Oscar videos, even if loyal fans still ask about his predictions. Ironically, we Skype on the day of the Oscar ceremony, but the topic of our conversation is quite different. Just a few weeks ago, we met at International Film Festival Rotterdam for the fifth edition of the Critics’ Choice sidebar. In its current reincarnation, (The Return of The) Critics’ Choice is curated by two Filmkrant authors, Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker, as an attempt to revitalize the links between film criticism and the festival culture, as well as a search for new formats of communication between these two spheres. Ever since the Critics’ Choice re-inauguration in 2015, Kevin has been a participant of the program, just as his five essays so far can serve as a case study on the way the form (and the economic reality around it) has changed in the past several years.

Maybe we can start this conversation by reflecting on the changes from 2015 to 2019 in your career, because these five videos seem like they correspond, in a way, to your professional path?

As you know, the titles for these video essays are selected from the Critics’ Choice program Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker put together every year. So from the films they propose, we pick whatever we find suitable, or sometimes they have a specific suggestion. Keeping in mind that what we come up with is being screened before the film, which is a very particular and challenging context. It is a responsibility I take very seriously — what is an appropriate way to introduce a film that they [the festival viewers] have not yet seen in a theatrical setting? Am I going to spoil their experience by what I present before the screening? What is the right context, or what is the useful and the productive context that can enhance their experience of watching this film? And that puts me in a position where I’m complementing or supplementing the film, without distracting or detracting.

The first year was pretty straightforward, it was the first time that Critics’ Choice had commissioned video essays, so none of us really knew what to expect. I think Dana just wanted me to get involved, she liked my work. They had chosen Roger Ebert’s biography Life Itself (2014). I was really excited, because I had worked with Roger Ebert, I had known him personally, and I already made two video essays about him — actually one was about Life Itself. First, I thought it would be the right choice, but then the more I thought about it, this other video I had made — a tribute for him, with the voices of several of his website’s contributors, from all over the world — seemed a bigger celebration; not just about the specific film, but about Roger, cinephilia, cinema culture as a global phenomenon. That really seemed to suit Rotterdam, what the festival meant for me. This kind of set a precedent, in the sense that to make a video essay about a film, you don’t have to make it specifically about the film itself. It can be about the subjects, it can provide a context that does not necessarily require any footage, so that was the first experiment with trying to understand what are the perimeters of this commission and what does work.

Then the second year was the first time that I actually made an original video essay for Critics’ Choice, it was Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (2015). Of the five video essays I’ve produced for the Critics’ Choice, this is the only one that uses footage from the film, and it took a bit of negotiation that Dana was able to get permission of Hong Sang-soo’s international agent Fine Cut, that we were able to get a copy of this movie. So, I got to do a pretty in-depth analysis, and the film is really fascinating — it is basically the same story told twice, back to back, and the thing I really wanted to know is how the first version of the story compares to the second. If I took the same scene from both versions and played them at the same time, what could I find out? That was a wonderful exercise in critical viewing and side-by-side analysis, but then I started to get a bit self-conscious: “Oh, maybe the audience doesn’t want to see this footage.” So, I thought maybe I can offer an alternative experience — if they don’t want to be spoiled, I can tell a story inspired by the film. This idea of having two video essays playing at the same time on different halves of the screen, the top and the bottom, and then at the beginning just instructing the audience that they can choose which one they want to see, they can simply use their hands to block the part of the screen they don’t want to see.

Did you see anyone actually doing this, at the screening?

Yes, they were actually doing it! It was very appropriate for this film, because it really puts you in the mindset of being very aware of the choice as a narrative device, both in terms of the characters making choices that then determine the outcome of the story but also the filmmaker and the screenwriter making choices of what a character does and how this affects the way the scene is filmed. If a character acts differently in the alternate version of the scene, then the film adjusts its camera work and staging to accommodate these choices. So, this matter of choice I found very crucial, and I was satisfied that the form of the video essay could reflect that — really put the viewer in the position of embodying that choice. It all led to this wonderful experimental viewing experience, there were like 900 people in the Luxor Theater, which was amazing for a Hong Sang-soo film.

As the two video essays started playing, I saw some people blocking one half of the screen, some blocking the other half, others blocking it the way they are totally not supposed to, like vertically, just having fun with it. But then the majority of the viewers, I think, tried to watch everything, which is very revealing about human nature. I could literally see people’s eyeballs moving in all these different directions — if there was an eye-tracking technology, it would have been a mêlée. It made visible to me the diversity of movie-viewing experiences happening simultaneously in the theater. I really wish I had been filming, from my point of view, on the stage, with all these heads moving around in different directions. That, again, I really think embodies the idea of Critics’ Choice — bringing this liveness to the cinematic, theatrical experience that no other viewing context can quite match. For me, it was very much a fulfillment of what Critics’ Choice could realize.

This year, you offered more like a meditation on images and their political use, because you were assigned this film by Radu Jude. But instead, I was watching images of the Yellow Vests movement.

I definitely credit Chloé for making that association. For this particular commission, we were given the option of Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018) or Mariano Llinás’s La Flor (2018), which is a 15-hour film. We weren’t quite prepared to watch all of it and think how to make a video essay. Plus, I’m a fan of Radu Jude’s films, I think he is a sensitive and intellectually sharp member of what we could call the Romanian New Wave. This critical awareness about how stories are told, especially national stories, really sets him apart from the other filmmakers. As a critic I identify with him most closely, because I think he has this critical, almost essayistic sensibility to his filmmaking. And this film is certainly an example of that.

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians uses a very intellectually rigorous and dramatically stunning reflection upon how history is told, but also how it’s acted, re-enacted, what it means to re-enact history in the present, how it starts to construct a vision of what the future may look like — even one that’s not intended, one that unleashes all these dark and primal impulses, like Pandora’s box. So the film definitely got both of us thinking about the past and the future; past in terms of re-enactments of cinema history, where re-enactment played a role the way it does in this film. My memory went all the way back to the beginning of cinema, with one of the first re-enactments of the Spanish-American War [Shooting Captured Insurgents] that really helped spark US nationalism, which led to the era of American imperialism up until today. Even if it’s now a very strange period with Trump, it seems like entering a new phase. So, in this sense for me, it was a way to reflect both on the past and the future

Then Chloé was reminded of Peter Watkins’ La Commune, which is a French film, so both of us brought our national backgrounds into a question of how to address this Romanian film, because neither of us is Romanian, or an expert on Romanian cinema or Romanian history, but we felt like the best way to address this film is to bring our own context as points of comparison to what Radu Jude presents. So, for her, it was the re-enactment of the Paris Commune of 1871, where the film’s participants remember history, reflect on history, and actually reactivate it — their radical political consciousness reactivate it by re-enacting history. In that way, it is a progressive counterpoint to the regressive way in which Edison Films instilled nationalism through re-enactment.

So Chloé made this really interesting connection, just reflecting on the fact that it was not so long ago when La Commune was filmed, it was 1999. Flash-forward 20 years later, listening to some of the people talking in this film, some of them might be actually involved in the Yellow Vests movement now — a movement that still kind of defies or complicates our conventional understanding of Left vs Right, as it is scrambling the notions of what a leftist and a rightist movement looks like, which gives it a sense of possibility that it could be an exceptional movement to change the course of history, or could go in another direction that ends up just as disappointing, violent, frightening as what is before. Maybe even both. So this critical, historical, political awareness that the film engendered in us articulates what the film offers just to our own context

If I understand correctly: for these five video essays so far, what was telling was the audience, the festival audience, and the fact that they might not have seen the film yet. These films mostly don’t exist in the pop-culture discourse, unlike, let’s say, the American films you used to work on in your previous assignments. When you make a video essay on Spielberg or Transformers, even if people have not seen some of it, they are familiar with the aesthetics or the topics. Whereas if you haven’t seen Radu Jude’s latest film, you really have no idea what it is like.

Hm, that’s a good point. I don’t think these video essays have been primarily concerned with “Here is what you need to know about this movie” — at least the ones I’ve been involved in making. Actually, the one for Radu Jude doesn’t even mention Radu Jude’s film.

Yes, precisely.

It is really about providing a larger historical and political context, and personal context, for the viewer to kind of really take into consideration as they enter the world of the film. You know, we assume that the viewers chose the film, because they are not blockbusters and world-famous titles. We assume that the audience has done a bit of research already, they are self-selecting audience, they’ve already brought some sense of informed choice to their attendance of the screening. We don’t want to spoon-feed them some basic stuff, and we don’t want to do what you see so many YouTube videos doing — it is just not interesting to us. The Critics’ Choice videos are very much about exploring what is interesting to us in relation to the films. It is like going deeper into our own subjectivities — playing out a movie that a film has produced inside of us — or in the case of Reading // Binging // Benning, without having seen the film.

I was just about to mention this one…

Yeah, that was maybe the ultimate challenge of the five, because we did not have access to any material, any footage, we could not even watch the film, there was not screener of it. Dana said she hadn’t seen it yet, but they programmed it in good faith, as the film played in Vienna — James Benning’s reputation precedes him. As Benning joked, “if you visit me, I can play it on my laptop.” But that wasn’t possible. This really led to a fascinating challenge, Chloé and I asked ourselves how can we introduce a film we haven’t seen yet. This is also the kind of challenge Dana is very enthusiastic about — she really likes these thought exercises, provocations that disrupt our normative assumptions what movie-going is supposed to be about.

So faced with that challenge, Chloé and I went into different directions. For her, it was “what can I learn about this movie just from online research,” introducing various articles and reviews. And then it is worth thinking about the role of information and data in creating a context for you to receive the movie. What it means to read extensively about a film before you watch it, as opposed to not knowing anything about it? What kind of constructions of authority, and forms, experience, expertise does that propose? Is there such a thing as seeing something “the right way?”

For me, I was kind of curious to know if I can use footage from Benning’s other films. I was very shocked to find out there are more than 30 Benning films on YouTube alone. And if you know anything about James Benning, YouTube seems to be the most inappropriate way to watch his films. So this was sort of a parallel to Chloé’s concerns about legitimacy and appropriateness, the right way to experience James Benning’s cinema. So we played with it, and we were very satisfied. I think it led to a really nice communal experience at the screening, for the viewers.

How about some feedback from the filmmakers so far? Or the rights holders?

Actually, no. Radu Jude’s production designer [Iuliana Vîlsan] liked our video essay a lot. The question of relationships with the rights holders is kind of tricky. I think Fine Cut gave me permission to use their footage, because they had seen this other video essay I made on Hong Sang-soo and The Day He Arrives (2011), which was part of a DVD package. Maybe this is why they were comfortable with the idea, and again – they were the only one who provided footage.

For Jackie (2016), it was a Benelux distributor and they were like “tell us the specific time codes of the movie you want to work with, maybe we can get it to you on time.” I know other people who’ve made video essays, tried to get the footage — it usually ends up just a few days before the festival, so they are put in a tough situation.

So for Not Another Camelot, I decided it would be more interesting to create a larger context of our First Ladies, their media representations, how they represent themselves in the media. Again, I was amazed that I could find so much footage about all the First Ladies, from Jackie to Melania, on YouTube. It became a desktop documentary of navigating through history of almost 60 years of First Ladies, just through YouTube clips. You see these juxtapositions, what First Lady influences another, or what First Lady is a reaction against the previous one in terms of womanhood, what it meant to be an ideal female figure — a model for the society to envision what a woman should be at that point of history. I felt like I have more to say about that than about the actual film. And this was also directed at the audience, because I was a bit nervous that Jackie seems to have this nostalgic quality to it, going back to the good old days of Camelot. I really wanted to create this kind of shock effect — thinking about what it was like back at the time, then drawing a line connecting it through history all the way to the present, so that the audience is watching the film very much with the present in mind, sensitive to how these ideal women/leaders/personas are constructed. It is not just about Jackie, it is also about Melania, it is about Trump.

I see we’re getting also the political angle in this interview…

That’s really been interesting for me. When I was making video essays for Fandor, they were not so political. But that one and the one from this year were very much resonating with what the times we are in now. This question what video essays are good for — for me, it is not just about exploring movies in themselves but movies within a larger context, what is going on in our lives and what is going in the world, this way of using the movie-viewing experience to generate a cinematic subjectivity within ourselves, kind of looking at our own life and analyzing it with as much attention, with as much critical resourcefulness we use to analyze movies. It is about bridging this gap, making this connection — between the screen world and the real world.

Watching these videos in chronological order, it is easy to spot how your methods of storytelling have evolved in the past five years. You seem to employ more and more the desktop aesthetics in which you seem to be so invested right now, but your work is also getting more and more minimalist, I would say. How do you perceive these changes?

The desktop is something both Chloé and I have come to embrace. I mean, why not? We are good at it, we should just own it and let it define us to some extent. This last video essay was not so much like that, but we were making different modes of audiovisual media. The first part is like a silent film, with these intertitles; the second one is closer to TV news, with the crawling text on the bottom; and the third part is social media postings. So, for us it is about engaging with different mediatic modes of address and exploring the creative possibilities of these different modes.

I don’t treat montage the same way a filmmaker would use it — I’ve done it for years. For me, this is kind of the baseline. I guess I’m just not interested in doing the things the normal way. Life’s too short! Critics’ Choice and the specific situation that it proposes, for what a video essays is supposed to do with an audience, the more experimental, the more provocative, the more playful you can be with it — the more it does to fulfill this possibility of engaging an audience, of awakening the audience to a new experience of viewing.

How about working with a collaborator now? Working with someone seems to be different when you are a filmmaker, as opposed to film criticism, which is a rather lonely and subjective act.

I definitely enjoy it and appreciate it. Even the first video essay for Critics’ Choice, you can consider it a collaboration with more than 20 contributors to Roger Ebert’s website, speaking in their own national languages.

With Chloé, it is really great to see what we can invent between the two of us. I don’t think we could have come up with these concepts alone. And to stage these dialogues — the Benning one is literally our voices taking turns. With this Radu Jude video essay, there is one part that is more my take on the subject, and another part that is more hers, but we develop them together, so they really connect with each other and with the movie. I guess our collaboration allows us to devise elaborate structures that otherwise we won’t be able to devise by ourselves.

How about expanding this experience to the entire Critics’ Choice program? Ever since the relaunch you have been there every year. How does it feel to discuss video essays with your colleagues in Rotterdam? Some come from your former background, with a focus on audience-friendly, commercial production, while others come from the academic milieu. Every year at IFFR, there is this public debate organized by Critics’ Choice, and many of the problems discussed there seem to stay the same, only the way we talk about them changes somehow.

In some way, you can say that the form has become a victim of its own success. When you have so many people doing it, you would think that would actually make it more sellable, as a publishable form, to be funded and paid for. But on the other hand, because it’s so commonplace, it really raises the question of what is the need for a commissioned work.

In that regard, I am super grateful that Dana and Jan Pieter have kept the Critics’ Choice going, with the support of the festival and Bero Beyer, just to provide this opportunity. It is a very special context of video essays that are shown in front of a live audience, that creates a very unique viewing context. So maybe that’s the thing, not just about content itself but about presenting a certain uniqueness of context — whether that can be a uniqueness of form, uniqueness of delivery, uniqueness of viewing experience that give it a remarkable quality. This is probably why I’m such a fan of experimental cinema, more and more each year. When I first went to Rotterdam in 2010, I was paying attention to competition features and Bright Future, hardly watching any shorts or films from the experimental strand. And over the decade, that equation has been completely inverted. Now, the first thing I do is look for the experimental shorts — those are the ones that would most likely give me a fresh vision, new things to consider in terms of presenting and exploring images.

Getting to the question of the participants of the Critics’ Choice, one really nice development was finding ways to diversify the participants, to bring people beyond an American or European background. Also, Dana and Jan Pieter have been very conscious about having an equality of female video essayists, which is ahead of the curve at that point. For years, YouTube has been and still is dominated by male video essay producers.

So, these questions — who is making video essays? Which movies deserve video essays? How shall we present them to the audience? These considerations are all interconnected.

Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.

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