Montreal International Documentary Festival


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Seeking Communities - Nov 12 to Nov 18

Interview - Gabrielle Stemmer

Interview with Gabrielle Stemmer, filmmaker of Clean With Me (After Dark) presented in the section Seeking Communities available November 12 to 18

Let’s start with a simple question: how did you find these YouTube channels and their virtual community?

I found them years ago, by chance. Or more precisely, YouTube’s algorithm recommended them, guessing that I’d like them. It wasn’t wrong.

When did you decide to make a film based on this material? Can you tell us about your creative process, in terms of viewing, accumulating material, selecting clips, your thought process? How did you organize your research?

It didn’t immediately occur to me to make a film out of these videos. I watched them for a long time as a spectator, because for some strange reason (that I still haven’t figured out!), watching other women clean their homes was very relaxing for me. And I’m not alone – it’s a major reason these videos are so popular. At the same time, I found the videos very intriguing and I would always ask: why are they doing this? When I started talking about the videos with other people, I realized that I’d memorized an amazing amount of information about these women, their lives, their families and the curiosity the videos sparked.

At that moment, I happened to be looking for a subject for my final project at the Fémis [film school in Paris]. Because I was in the editing program, my film had to contain archival footage. It’s a requirement for all editors. I reasoned that these videos are, after all, archival footage, and that I had a lot to say about them – and I wanted to make something out of the time I’d “wasted” watching so many of them. So to answer the second part of your question, I had already watched a huge number of videos even before starting my work, to the point that all I had to do was scour my memories. I had already spent enough time thinking about the subject that I knew where I wanted to go with it.

The film has a very interesting progression in its narrative structure: you use sound, editing and framing to shift from the comical and the absurd to much more serious, anxious and even sad perspectives. Can you tell us about your approach, the questions you asked yourself and the resulting directorial decisions?

That progression is central to the film. I wanted the viewer’s gaze on these women to shift from a vaguely mocking irony to awareness of their suffering – and that of millions more women like them. I also wanted everything to happen on a computer screen, with no voiceovers. It was the first time I’d made this kind of film, and I was a little lost, especially when it came to narration: who’s doing the clicking? At first, I wanted to create a character, a sort of alter ego who didn’t have my name, and who also had a personal life on screen (she received messages on Facebook, learned about housekeeping videos…). But it was laborious, and it almost pushed the Youtubers into the background. I soon found that I preferred to make that narrator-clicker as neutral as possible, and she faded behind my name. The film takes the shortest path from A to B, to a kind of demonstration.

Did you contact the women who appear in the film? If you did, how did you present the project to them, and how did they react? Have any of them seen the film?

I asked all of them for permission to use their videos. In my emails, I explained that I was making a film about housekeeping videos on YouTube and on the difficulties of being a housewife – the loneliness, the anxiety. Some refused outright and no longer appear in the film, some readily agreed and some didn’t respond at all. I had closer contact with Jessica [of the Keep Calm and Clean channel], because I knew very early on that I wanted her to be a key figure. We emailed each other quite a bit. I sent her the finished film, and after she didn’t answer for a long time – what a tense wait! – I followed up and she said she loved the film. What a relief! While I was making the film, I was really apprehensive about how it would be received, not only by audiences but by Jessica in particular.

The “desktop documentary” genre – films made entirely from footage found on the Internet – emerged organically in the last few years. How did you come to be interested in this form, and do you have any particular influences, whether from this or other genres?

I was unaware of the genre until I saw a film by Kevin B. Lee, Transformers: The Premake. It was right when I was wondering how I was going to make my film, and when I saw Kevin’s film, it clicked. I even reached out to ask him to be my mentor for this project, and we Skyped several times over the course of the year. I deliberately avoided watching many more desktop documentaries after that, because I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced, or decide to avoid doing certain things because they’d already been done. It’s a fascinating form that opens up a lot of narrative possibilities. It establishes instant complicity with the viewer.

More generally, I’m moved by films that use pre-existing images. I’m very interested in the work of Jean-Gabriel Périot, for example, as well as certain films by Arnaud des Pallières and Chris Marker. And then, behind Clean With Me (After Dark), there’s the shadow of Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman – still one of the most important films, for me.

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