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Because We Are Visual

Two Belgian documentary makers presented their YouTube-based film at this year's Amsterdam Doc Film Festival to much critical acclaim

Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes, two recent graduates from The Royal Academy of Fine Artsl in Ghent, Belgium, recently showed their latest film 'Because We Are Visual' at the Amsterdam Doc Film Festival. An incredibly poetic and profound film comprised entirely of clips found on YouTube, it shows women show off their pregnant bellies for the web cam, a screaming mother chasing her IM-obsessed daughter away from the computer, and a boy secretly filming himself on the toilet. But instead of purely presenting the viewer with a freak show, we are instead confronted with a far more subtle and human perspective, showing it’s still all about love, attention and the need to connect, even in the virtual age...

Dazed Digital: How did you come upon the idea?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
It was actually a clip that Olivia found on YouTube that gave us the idea – it appears in the film. It’s an image of a girl. She’s wearing pink underwear and you don’t see her face. For us it was intriguing because it was somehow abstract and anonymous, but also very intimate because she was choosing to reveal her body in a public space. The image already had something poetic in it, so from that point we started searching more, and actually the film developed in the searching/editing process..

DD: Were there specific things you wanted to show from the outset?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
We had certain themes in mind, like physicality and virtual reality, loneliness, voyeurism, exhibitionism – stuff like that that. It was quite an intuitive process, though.

DD: How much material did you have to sift through?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
We saw a lot. We collected so much material, I think it was like 1,000GB or something over ten months.

DD: The sense of voyeurism definitely comes through. Did you feel like intruders in other people's lives?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
It’s strange, at some point you start to feel very connected to the characters, because you follow them every day or see so much of them, and yes, it becomes very voyeuristic. But we also had a lot of questions immediately, like the extent to which they were acting, because they are saying very private and intimate stuff but it’s always very ambiguous. We were interested in not only the things they were saying but the way they were saying them.

DD: Have you had contact with any of the subjects?
Olivia Rochette:
Not yet, no. We want to show it to them...
Gerard-Jan Claes: The editing was quite problematic for us. Every cut felt immediately like a comment on them, so there was this balance of keeping it respectful, not making it into a freak show. It was more about creating a certain framework where the audience could reflect about a certain kind of media and the effect of that media, as something that we can all relate to.

DD: There’s a part in the film where you see a whole series of overweight women showing their bodies to the camera…
Gerard-Jan Claes:
Yes, there was this weird thing that YouTube becomes like a mirror, where these people are checking themselves out, but at the same time exhibiting themselves and needing recognition or comments. We were also interested in the tension between these physical bodily presences in a virtual framework. And then there was the choreographic element of people rotating their bodies in front of the camera.

DD: There seemed also to be both a sense of loneliness and community for the subjects?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
I think people do feel really connected to a community, but that sometimes there’s a reality check too, like in the end "I’m still here alone in my bedroom."

DD: How’s the film been received?
Gerard-Jan Claes:
The film seems to work on very different levels. We had a contemporary art curator approach us to be part of a big exhibition, then we also had a call from a commercial company. I think it’s a lot to do with the topic.

Text by Rosalind Fowler