Essay Film Festival 2017: Kevin B Lee Interview

In 2017 the Essay Film Festival hosted a lecture-performance by acclaimed essay film-maker Kevin B Lee at ICA. Below is an interview we conducted prior to the event.

Can you tell us what led you to start creating video essays?

I made my first video essays in 2007, as part of a blog project covering a list of the 1000 greatest movies of all time. As I wrote about each title on the list, I began wanting to engage more intimately with the films by working directly with their footage, and creating video essays allowed me to realize this more direct engagement. It also became a way to engage with other members of the online film community. In collaborating with other critics on video essays, I’d absorb their ways of looking at films and adapt their insights into an audiovisual form. It was a very enriching process, not unlike a self-designed series of video essay tutorials on film analysis with the best possible thinkers involved.

Why do you think there has been such a rise in the construction of digital video essays over the last few years?

The rise of this form marks an age where it is as easy to communicate with images and sounds as it is with written text. I started making video essays at a time when technological advances in digital and social media combined to afford one the ease to a) access films in digital form; b) edit the footage to create a new work; c) upload the work for others to view. This process has only become easier and more intuitive for subsequent generations through personal mobile technology and ever more sophisticated forms of social media. Now it is as natural to express oneself through images or short videos as it is to write text. The video essay thus becomes an important method to reflect upon and develop this everyday mode of personal expression through the audiovisual.

What is it about the form of the video essay which makes it a useful tool to provide commentary on our current political situation?

Since the video essay is such a widely embraced form for discussion of popular culture, it affords an opportunity to direct this collective attention to larger social and political issues that inform our culture. I can point to my own development to illustrate this shift of attention. My first video essays were relatively innocent expressions of cinephilia meant to explore my love of films. This celebratory mode holds true for the vast majority of video essays produced today. At the same time, the video essay is also a tool for self-education. My video essays were auto-didactic creations largely driven by a simple question: what is the most interesting thing I can learn by engaging with a given film? When I started, I was most interested in learning how films function through narrative, cinematography and staging. But as I probed further into these ostensibly apolitical aesthetic questions, I began to encounter deeper factors informing my interests.

For instance, I once evaluated Oscar-nominated lead performances based on how much time each actor or actress spent on screen to see if there was a correlation between screen time and impact of the performance on the viewer. What I inadvertently discovered was that Oscar-nominated lead actors have twice as much screen time on average than their actress counterparts. This raised larger questions about gender disparity in Hollywood and mainstream film as reflected on screen.

As these social and political concerns continued to surface in my investigations of films, I began to seek more conscientious modes of filmmaking. The BFI’s 2013 series on essay films provided many such works. Through reflecting on that series, I concluded that the essayistic mode is at its most potent when it expresses discontent with everything that’s conventional, complacent and conformist in contemporary media and society. The screen becomes not just a cinematic canvas, but a space to dissect and diagnose the ideological forces working through it and their subsequent effects on the viewer.

Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group talks about how media and technology are a 21st century version of the dark arts that cast a black magic spell on us. Video essays can take us outside of these spells and allow us to see through them, and possibly help come up with counter-spells.

Can you expand on how you see the video essay as an activist gesture?

I think one crucial element of the essayistic mode is how it positions us outside the space of the screen to see how that space operates. In doing so, it redirects our attention back to the material world, to physical spaces, to the forces that govern and shape them, and to our own possibilities to act amidst these forces. We are no longer just eyes glued to a screen; we become minds and bodies reacquainted with our reality.

This rearrangement of our relationship between screens and reality is crucial to realizing the potential of the video essay as a mode of activist expression. The rise of video essays proposes a new wave of democratization of the audiovisual, where everyone can articulate themselves and mobilize others through their self-made media. Key to the realization of this possibility is developing a collective mindset that can engage this mode in a manner worthy of our best aspirations, both for our screen culture and our social realities.

Does the ease of access to the video essay reduce the authenticity of them as artworks?

I don’t think ease of access reduces the authentic artistic properties of an outstanding video essay any more than it would a great work of cinema, television or other creative media. Still, it’s worth looking at how our present historical condition affects the relationship between authenticity and art, which was already problematized in past generations by Walter Benjamin and John Berger, and is further complicated today by digital hyper-accessibility.

Most video essays are produced under the logic of accessibility, a democratic media context of free appropriation of found materials for personal expression. Here a work’s authenticity is defined more by the singularity of the maker’s critical insights or creative vision rather than the work itself as an irreproducible material artifact. The free circulation of the work becomes a key indicator of the work’s “authentic” value.

Alternately, there are works I could reasonably label “video essays” that operate under a completely different logic, existing fully within the confines of the art world: Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue come to mind. These works, as they are presently experienced, situate their authenticity in the specific spatial and temporal experience of the gallery. In such instances one could just as well replace the term “authenticity” with “scarcity value.”

Both these modes have their respective roles in contributing to our understanding of art, as to where and how we might find it today. Investigating their respective authenticities may lead us to ask what we want out of authenticity at this point in history.

Session #13 : Critique, Protest, Activism and the Video Essay, a lecture-performance by Kevin B. Lee

Photo © 2016 Kevin B. Lee

Thursday 30 March 2017

Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH

8:30–11:00 | Cinema 1 | [Book here]

The current social and political environment demands a moment of urgent reckoning for the audiovisual essay, whether it is practiced by artists, scholars, or everyday video-makers: How can or should it address the current crises facing the world? Kevin B. Lee’s work has pondered this question, in the past, through video essays on filmic forms of social protest and dissent. But at what point do audiovisual studies of works of activism become activist works in their own right? How do criticism and activism co-exist, and possibly inform and nurture the other? In this special lecture-performance, Lee will explore these questions by showing and discussing a range of recent audiovisual essays that engage with a social and political consciousness, including Steven Boone’s Snake Oil for N—–town Fever, which uses Roger Corman’s The Intruder as a blueprint for diagnosing the prevailing logic of Trumpism; Kiera Sandusky’s Problems with the Gendered POV Shot in Lilya 4-Ever, which examines the problematic outcome when a mainstream film is used for social education purposes; and extracts from Lee and filmmaker-scholar Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s ongoing research project about videos produced and circulated by the Islamic State.

With the support of the Department of Film, Theatre & Television, University of Reading, and the Goethe-Institut, London

Sight & Sound Film Poll: Nicole Brenez on La hora de los hornos / The Hour of the Furnaces, Kevin B. Lee, 2012, digital video, 8 minutes
Produced for Sight & Sound magazine’s international poll of the greatest films ever made, this video adapts Nicole Brenez’ argument for the poll to give greater consideration to political films, as well as to the politics of filmmaking.

Real Film Radicals, Kevin B. Lee, 2013, digital video, 6 minutes
A recontextualization of “radical” cinema, this video critiques how the use of the term “radical” has been applied to certain contemporary films. It then pays tribute to films, many of which have been neglected or marginalized from film history, that attest to a legacy of radical resistance filmmaking.

State of Emergence: The Wall, Anti Banality Union, 2016, digital video, 3 minutes
Who is the enemy, exactly? Dozens of clips from Hollywood zombie films are interwoven into a single sequence depicting how societal paranoia is propagated by mainstream entertainment. An excerpt from State of Emergence, a work-in-progress feature by Anti-Banality Union, a New York based media activist collective

Snake Oil for N—–town Fever, Steven Boone, 2016, digital video, 10 minutes
The 1960s Roger Corman B-movie The Intruder is used as a blueprint for diagnosing the prevailing logic of 21st century Trumpism and the enduring racial dynamics of the United States.

Problems with the Gendered POV Shot in Lilya 4-Ever, Kiera Sandusky, 2017, digital video,  6 minutes
The 2004 Swedish film Lilya 4-Ever depicted the problem of sex trafficking so powerfully that it was used by governments, NGOs and educators as an awareness raising tool. This video examines the aesthetic choices that make the film so powerful, as well as the problematic outcomes when it was used for social education purposes.

My Crush Was a Superstar, Chloé Galibert-Laîné, 2017, digital video, 10 minutes.
This desktop documentary follows a single image of an ISIS fighter through a trail of messages, videos and postings to uncover his existence in both social media and reality. An excerpt from an ongoing research project by Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee investigating videos produced and circulated by the Islamic State.


Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker and critic who has made over 300 video essays exploring film and media. His award-winning Transformers: The Premake was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound Magazine and played in several festivals including the Berlin Film Festival Critics Week. In 2017 he is the first-ever Artist in Residence of the Harun Farocki Institute in Berlin.


Session #9: The Illinois Parables with filmmaker Deborah Stratman in conversation

Photo © 2016 Deborah Stratman

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH

6:30-8:30 | Cinema 1 | [Book here]

Filmmaker Deborah Stratman will be in conversation with critic and film essayist Kevin B. Lee.

Described by the artist as “a suite of Midwestern parables that question the historical role that belief has played in ideology and national identity”, The Illinois Parables proposes a critical and timely reflection on history and the landscape. Arranged into 11 chapters, spanning migratory settlements in 600CE to European colonisation and the political struggles of the 1960s, this exemplary essay film excavates fragmentary histories and collective memories of exodus, forced displacement and natural disaster. Stratman unearths the metaphysical themes of the American sense of self, to reveal the tangled, but rearticulated histories of the dispossessed buried deeper in the layers of the Midwestern soil. “A dense weave of found and original sights and sounds, […] at once an experimental documentary, a work of historical excavation and an insistently moral ideological critique” (Manohla Dargis).


The Illinois Parables, Deborah Stratman, USA 2016, 16mm, 60 mins