An Interview with Watching the Detectives director Chris Kennedy
Watching the Detectives plays Saturday, January 19 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2019.
“It's a freeze-frame
Still it's real life
You don't want to look
Cause you've seen the film and you've read the book.”
—Elvis Costello, “Black and White World”
If, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, then Chris Kennedy’s 36-minute marvel Watching the Detectives finds in that idea a working metaphor for the modern condition. Comprised entirely of Reddit posts and image-board photos from a group discussion about the Boston Marathon bombing, the film is both a document of its time and a diagnosis of The Way We Live Now. In the days following the April 2013 attack, a group of anonymous armchair sleuths took to Reddit and sister site 4chan to postulate as to the identity of the perpetrators; their posts, excitable bursts of self-assured scrutiny based around lo-res images of the bombing captured by civilians, brought forth a few intriguing theories, as well as a number of absurd, unfounded allegations—none of which stopped major news organizations from reporting these claims as fact.
What Kennedy has done with this material is so simple yet inspired it’s a wonder no one had thought of it earlier: through a briskly unfolding montage of text and image he’s fashioned an investigative documentary in the guise of a political thriller. Allowing the words to speak for themselves, Kennedy forgoes the use of sound, focusing attention on the rhythm of the typed exchanges—which range from humorously flippant to genuinely persuasive—and the details of the associated imagery. Taking it upon themselves to sift through the sea of civilians for clues, discrepancies, and suspicious behavior, the commenters quite literally chart a course through the aftermath of the bombing (via a maze of computer-generated arrows and circles that attempt to match sight lines and connect unrelated individuals). It’s here where biases and prejudice take on an air of self-perpetuating groupthink, with “brown people” as sole persons of interest, certain backpacks designated as more functional terrorist tools than others, and jackets, hats, hoods, and beards as agreed-upon markers of potentially nefarious motives. Needless to say, the Internet didn’t crack the case.
Kennedy, a Toronto-based artist whose film practice has roots in structuralism and observational nonfiction, has for 15 years worked to cinematically refashion notions related to the basic tenets of perspective, depth, and space, often with regards to landscape and arenas of public assembly. (The name of Kennedy’s website, theworldviewed.com, provides as appropriate a description as any for his philosophy.) His 16mm shorts Memo to Pic Desk (2006) and lay claim to an island (2009) utilize a variety of archival materials and texts—letters, memos, civic correspondence—as tools to interrogate images (both still and moving), geographic settings, and sociopolitical contexts, and together offer the clearest precedent for Watching the Detectives, by several measures his most ambitious work in this mode to date. Updating these concerns for the present day, Kennedy highlights the increasingly troubling way we digitally consume and interact with real world events, and how these online platforms have enabled new ways to observe, examine, and, ultimately, profile complete strangers. Compulsively watchable and absorbing, it’s a film that entertains even as it implicates. The real world has rarely looked so strange.
Reverse Shot: I’m curious about the initial conception of Watching the Detectives and your first encounter with the Reddit thread used in the film. Is this something you belatedly discovered and researched, or did you stumble across it at the time of the Boston bombing?
Chris Kennedy: When the Marathon bombing happened, I was obviously interested in the news and was following that pretty closely, reading various news blogs, and one mentioned that a “/findbostonbombers” Reddit thread was happening. I checked it out and I was really fascinated in the moment with how each of those threads would create a narrative, how you could kind of follow one character until all the rumors about them were dispelled—like, “Nope, that’s not the right person.” Each of those threads would create this realm of possibility.
So pretty much as soon as I began investigating the Reddit chain I knew that I wanted to make a film about it, because I am really interested in the idea of how we perceive things and how those things are colored by our preconceptions and biases. I started taking notes immediately and grabbed all the images I could. And I had planned on going back for the text but they actually closed the thread—the original Reddit thread is locked now. It took me a year or two to figure out that the Wayback Machine on the Internet archive actually archived the majority of it. So I was able to fill in the pieces using the Internet archive and find about 80% of the original thread and get to work on it.
RS: After the initial inspiration struck, how did you go about making the various formal decisions that define the film: no voiceover, limiting yourself to only text and image, etc?
CK: I’ve limited myself to text and image before, and I’ve worked on a couple of other projects that were research-based: Memo to Pic Desk which I made with Anna van der Meulen is based on newspaper photos and typed memos, for example. The memos were instructions from the photo editors to photographers, directing the photographers about what to shoot. The memos helped you read the pictures, and think about journalism in general, in a different way.
Since Reddit is pretty much all text and linked images, I thought it was only natural to work in a similar way with this piece. The images, and people’s interventions into the images, were just so visually rich that I thought I could get away with just those two elements and allow the text and images to lead people through it rather than guiding them with extraneous narration, such as a voiceover.
I’m also interested in the way that when we read something there’s already a kind of internal voice that is part of the experience. We kind of carry our own voice into the act of reading and then we hear other people’s voices in the textual inflections as well. There’s a different dynamic between reading a text and hearing someone speak it. When someone speaks it it’s pretty much reduced to that person’s intonation and discussion. It’s been really fascinating reading the film alongside other people in a cinema.
RS: What was the process like editing the various threads and comments into a narrative?
CK: The story itself is a narrative, so the process was basically ordering the discussion lists and going through pages and pages of discussion lists and finding the parts that were the most salient. So it was basically cutting things down. All the text there is original––the only thing I did is condense it if I needed to remove a few things or whatever. I would usually have to reduce a paragraph in a thread to a sentence or two that would get the point across. It’s edited quite like anyone would edit a film. It’s a dialogue with a narrative arc. But then of course there are different threads and I tried to capture the simultaneity of weaving in and out of several threads and coming back to certain things. One of the original ideas was to consider how a narrative works (how we build up suspicion around a person), and the film is made in that way. I wanted to foreground that through the process.
RS: What struck me as I revisited the film is the humor. Was it a conscious decision to keep or include certain funny or humorous comments while maintaining the serious nature of the subject matter?
CK: It’s inherent to the material on two levels: One, that’s what a lot of the Internet is all about: people roasting each other. Online conversation, even when on a serious subject, is usually distanced from the event itself—and distance allows for cynicism and humor to emerge. Secondly, the film relies very much on precise timing, as does comedy, so invariably the humor comes out in that. Obviously some of things people are saying here are funny, while some are quite stupid, but even on the stupid level it can be entertaining. I’ve seen the film in a few different countries now, and American audiences tend to laugh a lot—which is a bit disconcerting. But then I’ve been with audiences who have taken it very seriously. It’s an interesting mix of responses. There must be something there about American culture that I can’t quite put my finger on—a sense of irony or distance or something—or a complete absorption of meme culture. I don’t know.
RS: You mentioned that all the images we see in the film are taken from the various comment threads, but those images originally came from where? Surveillance footage, civilian cameras, newspapers photos?
CK: With the exception of the images of the brothers that the FBI released a few days after the bombing (and which show up about two-thirds of the way into the film), all the images are shot by people on the street. And I think that’s one of the key things about the film: these people are working through a found set of imagery, but that found set doesn’t actually contain what they’re looking for. It is accurate to call the crowd sourced photography surveillance footage in the way that we now surveil each other in our daily lives by taking pictures of each other with our phones, but it’s not surveillance footage in the traditional sense—the security infrastructure that the FBI used to actually find the brothers—it’s not cameras from restaurants or stuff like that. It’s a different type of ubiquitous camera, but it’s not part of the state apparatus—or at least not officially.
RS: And all the eye-line arrows and drawings were made by the commenters?
CK: Yeah, none of that was added by me. The only interventions I did to the images were to maybe clean a few of them up digitally so they had a higher resolution and to frame various parts of the image to guide the viewer through the image. But all the drawings are added by the Internet.
RS: I was curious about your decision to utilize 16mm. Obviously all your other films have been shot on celluloid, but here you’re beginning with digital materials and transferring them to 16mm. Can you talk about the thought process behind that?
CK: There were actually three reasons: a political, a conceptual, and a formal reason. Politically I kind of just wanted to enforce the cinema. By making it on 16mm, I knew that would require a projector, and also require that people gather around to see the film. It would also work against the kind of atomistic behavior of the subjects, most of whom were probably typing from their parents’ basements, collaborating on a collective endeavor, yes, but doing it alone. So I wanted people to collaborate on a collective endeavor in a cinema, with each other, especially because it’s silent and you can hear one another’s reactions, and feel each other’s bodies. And I hope that keeps the viewer accountable to each other in some way and perhaps me accountable to them when there’s a personal appearance.
Formally, I wanted to create movement. When you’re watching a digital slide show, time disappears. It’s flat image after flat image. But adding a bit of grain adds a little bit of movement and propulsion to it. And that propulsion is amplified by the film print zipping through the projector from one reel to the next. You have this event—this screening—that you’re held by for thirty minutes or so––so you’re kind of in a state of anticipation and animation.
And conceptually, it‘s a film about how we surveil each other, so I thought it was important to strip away all the metadata. The 16mm film print is air-gapped. You can’t look at the image and know which camera shot it on what street corner, and under what lighting conditions. And you don’t have information like what program I edited it on, what computer, what make—all that metadata that’s inherent in our digital practices now. By transferring it to film I tore that away. It’s a bit of revolt against all that, a way to say, you know what, all this is so inherent to our lives, how our technology surveils us—why don’t we just strip all that away?
RS: How did you recreate the enlarged Reddit text that we see?
CK: Well, Reddit has its own recognizable format. So there was the font they use, along with the people’s screen names, the up and down arrows, and whether or not a post was liked or not—all that was important, the reference points to what Reddit threads are. But I also wanted to make it more readable than a Reddit page, translating it from a computer screen to a cinema screen. So I chose to recreate the posts as if they were silent film intertitles. That’s kind of what I was thinking as I reframed them. The reference to Reddit is there in all the elements that are important to recreating that, but I thought, well, it’s also a silent film.
RS: Did you find yourself going down a similar kind of rabbit hole as the commenters once you started researching the threads and the various theories?
CK: There were times I became interested in how for a moment you can feel a certain way about a certain possible suspect, because of the way people were framing the situation. But I didn’t really go too far down a rabbit hole, partly because some of the things these people were saying were absurd. For example, there was one thread that I didn’t use where people actually tried to track down where the suspects might have bought their hats, once the FBI released official images of them, so that they could figure out who these people were, based on, like, what Walmart they shopped at. I guess I’m just not that obsessive of a personality. [laughs] That kind of stuff didn’t interest me. I’m pretty content with the picture that came out it: there were two brothers, acting fairly independently to do this thing. The official narrative suits me just fine.
RS: The film certainly reflects a distinctly modern condition, not only in how we interact with real world events but also how the media picked up on these threads and reported innocent people as suspects based on Reddit reports.
CK: Yeah, that’s really how we live our lives now, right? I can read something on Twitter and invariably in the next couple of days I’ll hear CBC, Canada’s international radio broadcast company, run a report on the same subject. This is how we lead our lives. The aspect of the media using Reddit as a source is most explicit in the section about the New York Post. I think that is the kind of the thing the film is pointing to, as it looks at this symptom of our time. I don’t do a broader media critique because I chose to limit myself with what was posted on Reddit, but I think it’s implicit in the film that social media now directs us—we now parse tragedy through this particular mediated form.
RS: You mentioned Memo to Pic desk as an antecedent for what you’re doing in this film. But do you see any other thematic or topical connections uniting your prior body of work with this film, which at a glance resembles a break?
CK: I totally submit that people who’ve seen a few of my prior films, especially the ones that have circulated more, like Brimstone Line or Tamalpais—very formal, grids-in-a-landscape films that riff off structural/materialist ideas—may look at this film and think I really changed gears. I’ve heard that a lot, and I’m like, “not really.” [laughs] I mean, in some ways I can see what they mean, but I’m still against representation. [laughs] I’m still thinking through the structures of the image and how it effects how we look at the world. The world is mediated and I’m fascinated about the way that mediation works and sometimes I go right down to the studs. I’m equally fascinated by historical events and occasionally I have the chance to really focus on these two elements—an event and its mediation—in dialogue. So it’s still a very form-sensitive kind of thing. There are other ways I could have gone about it that would be a complete break from my concerns, but I don’t personally see this film as being all that different than what I normally do.
At the same time, I wasn’t totally sure about it. I was quite shy about the process during the making of it and didn’t show it to anyone until near the end of its making. I was sure as far as I knew this was something I wanted to do and I knew how I wanted to do it, and I was content to pursue it. But I didn’t know what it would do when it lived in the world. And I’ve been very pleased with the reception, which has been much stronger and more positive than I expected. People have been responding to the film on its own particular terms and that has been very rewarding. It’s generated a strong dialogue and a new audience and I appreciate that.