Mel Sangyi Zhao created this video under the supervision of Chloé Galibert Laîné at California Institute of the Arts. First published in Notes on Videographic Criticism on December 8, 2020.
I had to watch your video a few times in order to really process everything that was happening and what you were analyzing. You don't hold the viewer's hand during the video - you throw us right into your life and the situation you explore. Could you discuss this in medias res-style approach and how it informs the piece? Did you consider adding more context?
I think the "throwing" the viewer into the my life approach mainly comes from the context of production. It was done during the one week workshop with Chloé Galibert-Laîné. I didn't have much time to make a piece of work regarding the media I was exploring, in this case, "the black person question mark" emoji face. Therefore I decided to go with my guts and try to present a reflexion/reaction that is very immediate and raw. I did imagine people would look at the piece and then do the Google research by themselves to get more context. That being said, as a Chinese, I tend to rebel against providing TOO MUCH context for the Western audience. This is a digression but I think by doing so we reproduce the cultural inequality where "we" have to make the extra effort for our work to be understood by "them" (western audience). I come from a fictional narrative cinema practice and I guess I have a habit of "throwing the viewer" into a situation (interesting one I hope) and providing just enough information to, hopefully, keep them engaged. Though I'm not sure it's the best way to approach a video essay. I hope you didn't find the context too hard to understand haha.
No not at all! I loved how you threw the viewer right into the situation. I actually think in a lot of video essays there is too much hand-holding, so I really enjoyed your approach, and it definitely has me rethinking a lot about the ways we often create video essays. And your video certainly pushes the boundaries of what a video essay can be, which is very exciting! How did you come up with the idea for this video? What led you to the hybrid desktop documentary/in-person interview approach?
So the exercise we got from Chloé was to examine a piece of media that we found funny but developed a more complex feeling to it with time. The first thing I thought of was this meme. And after the first session of the workshop, I was smoking on the balcony with my friend/roommate Alex, and we had a conversation about it. So the interview you saw in the video is actually a re-enactment of that first conversation in a way. Then during the workshop I saw two of Chloé's desktop films which really blew my mind. There is a great sense of intimacy just watching another person's computer screen, the google suggestions as you type in the box (as we know it won't suggest the same thing to everyone), the way they arrange their desktop, the picture they choose to be their wallpaper etc. I wanted to make this examination a very personal one. Alex and I have already engaged in conversations about race and politics so I felt very comfortable interviewing him and trusted him that he would be sincere and honest with me.
Please tell us more about your friend Alex. How did you approach Alex about making this video? Did Alex play any other role than what we see on screen? What did Alex think of your final video?
Well Alex and I are both film directing students at CalArts. We worked together at school and now with COVID we often help each other out with small shooting projects without even asking questions. So the filming was very casual, just a moment in the day. I guess it's the beauty of community haha. Alex is also the only black American student in our program (more context for you). He and another student drafted an open letter to the school about how they think the school can better support the black community. And for his own film, he started an indiegogo campaign where part of the money will go to the Relief and Resilience Fund. And above all he is a very smart and talented young artist. [Learn more about Alex and his work here.]
What did you learn from the video? What is your main takeaway? What do you hope others learn?
My main takeaway I guess is: just be a decent human being and treat each other like so. It sounds simplistic but I think that's why Alex's answer was so beautiful: just have more black friends. That is how we could fight racism in our personal lives by really being friends with each other, loving and knowing each other as human beings. What I hope other's would get is that friendship should be this amazing thing where you can allow yourself to be honest and engage in difficult conversations.