Audiovisual in Opposition: an interview with Irina Trocan

17 December, 2020

Irina Trocan is one of the most renowned young Romanian film critics, whose career was, in many respects, groundbreaking for her entire generation. An alumn of UNATC’s Audiovisual Communication and Film Studies programmes, Irina made a name for herself after being selected for a number of high-profile criticism workshops, such as Berlinale Talents, as well as in her work as a lead programmer at the NexT International Short Film Festival. In 2014, together with Andra Petrescu, she founded Acoperișul de Sticlă (The Glass Ceiling), an independent slow film criticism website, acting as its editor-in-chief, and her pieces have been published in prestigious outlets such as prestigious Sight & Sound, IndieWire and Cineaste. In the last couple of years, Irina has also had a successful entry into academia, working as a lecturer at UNATC, and as a prolific film theory editor: with “The Reality of Fiction, the Fiction of the Real” (2018, Hecate Publishing, together with Andra Petrescu) and „Romanian Cinema Inside Out” (2019, The Romanian Cultural Institute, recipient of the George Littera award of the Romanian Filmmakers Union).

Irina Trocan’s Ph.D. research, „Audiovisual in Opposition. Critical thinking in video-essays and essay-cinema”, was recently published at IDEA. Centering on video-essays, the book traces a genealogy of the phenomenon starting from audiovisual film histories, as well as essay-cinema and political cinema, studying all of them across multiple levels of interpretation in an eclectic approach. We sat down with Irina to discuss her first solo book, her process of researching video-essays and about its international community, as well as the possibility of replicating it at a local level.

Full disclosure: I’ve been working with Irina since 2015, at Acoperișul de Sticlă.

Irina Trocan.
Irina Trocan.

When did the topic of video-essays start to be a serious preoccupation, in a theoretical sense? Is there a relation to the fact that you were starting to have contacts with the international sphere of film criticism in that moment of your life, in the workshop circuit? Was it a way to notice how the phenomenon was developing in the Western European and American cultures, in contrast to the local Romanian one?

Just like any other thing that gradually captivates your attention, that part seems a bit blurry in my memory. But it certainly happened while I was working at the NexT short film festival, around the time I took a gap year between my masters’ and Ph.D. I was watching quite a lot of films back then and I was spending quite a lot of time on (mostly American) film criticism websites, and I think that was when I discovered Fandor and the video-essays on that platform. I found it interesting, especially in relation to short films. Even though it’s not a very common association, from my position as a programmer, I was already paying attention to directorial and cinematic styles, but in a way that was kind of basic, starting from the idea that if one is to embark on a creative endeavor, one must automatically go to fiction, to writing a script, to find a good cast, and so on. Through video-essays, I realized that the creative use of the cinematic form can also mean a total lack of intervention on part of a film crew, so to say. I found it to be a new form of expression. And I saw it quite quickly as a form of expression, beyond its cinephile subject matter, and that’s the perspective from which it interested me. 

I thought it was an innovative form of criticism that I would like to follow, and that it was capable of doing some things that were less common and “sexy” in written form. (And here I’m talking especially about formal analysis, even though there are other criteria as well). Of course, I had also already seen the films of Chris Marker by that point, along with many other documentary films that I’d classify as essay-films. I know that in my third year of college I started watching a lot of Guy Debord films, whose critical analysis of commercial imagery could be seen as a form of essay-film, and it’s a topic which also interests contemporary video-essayists. I think that it was going hand in hand with my creative, let’s say, interests towards cinema and towards cinematic commentary and film criticism, which interested me as well in terms of message and topic matter – because, beyond any sort of formal interests, video-essays were approaching a lot of very new topics and I thought it was cool that you could watch something for like five minutes and it could fascinate you to the degree to which you’d end up downloading 30 films that you’d never even heard before at that point, and then dig even deeper.

BOY MEETS GIRL. A video-essay by Irina Trocan.

The Audiovisual in Opposition is a very dense volume. You have a very eclectic intertextual approach – starting from big names in video-essays and essay-films, as well as film theory, to which you apply an equal treatment in your attempts at tracing a genealogy of the phenomenon. From Harun Farocki and David Bordwell to names and areas that are much more poppy, to various events (such as the Fandor controversy). It’s interesting, especially if you relate it to this concept that you speak about in the introductory chapter, meaning the democratization of the audiovisual. How did you work on the actual research of the book and at integrating this vast array of references?

From the very beginning, I wanted to write a book that conveys my fascination towards this topic, and I tried to never use too much jargon and not to use too many references, but also not to use a tone that was too relaxed, since, after all, I was working on a Ph.D. thesis. And I thought about ways in which I could split the paper up so that it would make it readable, so I took a few video-essays, genres thereof and films as cardinal points that I would mainly discuss, and from that point onwards, what I did was basically to use the time that I had at my disposal to arrange my ideas.

I’m a film critic. Meaning, I have a habit of writing about audiovisual objects, describing them in their own terms insofar that is possible, with a truthful and proportional contextualization as its backbone. I don’t mean to say that theory is a means of alienating this, or that I wanted to keep things 100% informal, but I wanted all of my theoretical readings from various connected areas to have a pretty clear imprint on my formal analysis. And that’s how I began working on a sort of structure that had a theoretical interlude – then a film analysis – then expanding the scope with yet another theoretical review, and so on. Formally, it is quite easy, since, fortunately enough, in contrast to other forms of writings, Ph.D. theses have certain rules. (All Ph.D. candidates have a problem with this, but depending on where you are, sometimes it’s helpful.).

I also had to hand in an essay in which I would argue why I chose this topic, from the very beginning, and the direction of the research. And, soon enough, I had to submit a three-part plan, which was: histories of cinema, essay-cinema, and video-essays. I realized that it didn’t work, at one point, and it was harder than you might think to say “hey, I’ll be doing the very same thing, but 2 will be 3, and 3 will be 2!” (laughs) And throughout all of this I had partial deadlines – at the end of my second year I had to hand in 40 pages, then the same amount again, at the end of each semester. Between the intensity of my interest in the topic and the fact that I’m quite the workaholic, not to mention these deadlines that were acting as a sort of constraint that forced me to properly split my time between research periods and writing periods – this is how I arrived at the final structure. I think I managed to coagulate a coherent book and not a collection of articles. On the other hand, I do admit that at one point it seemed that I was very familiar with the book, that I just wanted to hand it in and get some feedback that would gauge the first look at it, and then to pass it on to the publishers, where I’d finally have a proper editor and copy-editor which would clean up my mess – because as much as I took time towards rewriting and corrections, some things I simply was unable to see anymore.

I know it sounds somewhat mystical, but it’s a mix between biography, deadlines, and things that I went through as a Ph.D. candidate over the course of three years. I had a lot of freedom, and I’d add that it’s truly important that I met video-essayists with whom I corresponded in the meantime. The first was Kevin B. Lee. They were very open – as they were people for whom the topic was still quite fresh, they were the first ones to talk about it, and so they also had a sort of training as speakers. At one point I even made a series of interviews that lasted for about two hours, on average, with people that were super respectable and busy, but still, they were very open, back when Zoom calls weren’t really a thing and it felt infinite to be held up in front of a webcam for two hours. Some of them were Kevin B. Lee, Dana Linssen, Scout Tafoya, Mike Rappaport, and Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López. I also attended events, such as the Rotterdam Film Festival, which was somehow one of the firsts to pay attention to this phenomenon, so it was easy to run into people and start asking questions. Which is something ongoing: every time a new video-essayist pops up, I feel that they’re assimilated into the community quite quickly, even in the Sight and Sound yearly top, which is a sort of “call of the establishment” that I also coordinated two ago, together with Filmscalpel. 

You also discuss a lot about the fact that video-essays are a phenomenon that is intrinsically related to the Internet, but also about David Rodowick’s distinction between analogical and digital images. How do you see the relationship between video-essays and the Internet, to which degree is this the main determining factor of this phenomenon and how does it influence their spread and discourse?

It’s quite easy to see how the online community of video-essayists works. I think that anyone who has ever tried to organize a screening of video-essays, be it part of a festival or not, can realize that it’s quite hard to play it in a cinema. Not necessarily due to aesthetic or technical reasons – many of them work on a big screen, if you ask me, their sound and visuals have a good enough quality to withstand screenings – but I don’t think that it’s a phenomenon that coagulates according to geographical criteria, and also that part of the “traditional” critical community, that expresses itself in writing, mostly interacts online, especially when it comes to younger generations, and they might meet up in person at festivals, but almost all of them are alone in their smaller communities. In the case of video-essayists, that is even more so the case.

Usually, we’re talking about people who haven’t been doing this for a long time and are looking for successful standards in videographic criticism – be it in terms of popularity or aesthetic formulas – and as long as there are no video-essay college studies, just as there are programs for traditional criticism, it’s much easier for them to gravitate around a couple of key figures, who then always know who the “new kids on the block” are. And most of them ask themselves the same questions at the beginning: what is “fair use”, are you allowed to rip a Blu-Ray, to which extent must they use voice-overs, and so on. I think that it’s a kind of craft that people generally “steal” from others. And I’d say that most of them are still from the North Americas, especially the United States, and less from Europe. In terms of community spread, there’s probably a much larger local production that only really passionate people know about, but that doesn’t really make the rounds and is less visible on the Internet.

As for aesthetics, I think it’s quite easy to empirically spot that there are certain tendencies in videographic criticism that are heavily reliant on the medium, on the fact that they’re uploaded to YouTube and shared on social media. For example, every time one cites an extended fragment, especially from a more recent film, they know that it’s risky. Sometimes, almost all of them have voice-overs, sometimes even an unrelated soundscape, which allows them to be viewed on Facebook with a muted audio. And you can generally see the changes in policies on social media regarding video-essays quite quickly, they’re applied quite fast and uniformly so. At a theoretical level, the influence of the digital format is a bit more complicated. Going with Rodowick’s distinction, the fact of watching a ten-minute fragment from a Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovski film on a big screen is totally different, at least in terms of the duration that one feels in a physiological sense, than it is to watch a ten-minute-long video-essay about one of these authors, even if it doesn’t have a lot of editing cuts. At one point I took things on a per-case basis, watching essays that discuss long takes, and almost all of them end up using artifices, there’s no other way to it – nobody will sit and watch a ten-minute-long shot like in a Pedro Costa film. It’s not something that is necessarily related to the internet, since documentaries that cite the “grandmasters of static time” never quote a full shot of, let’s say, James Benning.

And even Rodowick admits that, beyond the literal surface and format of the screen, there is a difference in sensibility – and he claims that our generation’s sensibility is much rather videographic, because we’re not used to watching film reels in a cinema, like other generations used to. And he thinks that it’s one of the big challenges of his work as a professor to convey his students the phenomenological experience of watching a silent film, but he realizes that it’s increasingly unusual for film or humanities students to even have the experience of watching a film in a cinema. So, from that point of view, be it films on DVDs or video-essays, we’re talking about the same attention span. There are video essays that have the same ambitions or level of aesthetic difficulty that you’d rather expect from arthouse films. And some do recognize this, but it’s usually people who are already familiar with arthouse cinema. 

In the book, you also discuss the role that video-essays can play as didactic material, but also as a didactic exercise, which I think is influenced by the fact that you’re a lector at UNATC. And you’re practically the pioneer of video-essays in an institutional context in Romania, as you’re the one who introduced them into local film studies. Can you elaborate on these things a bit? I’m talking, of course, about things that are a tad more complex than, say The ending of Inception: Explained or 5 things you didn’t know about Birdman.

I’m pretty open to just about any form of video-essays, including pop ones, because I think that it’s a very normative format when it comes to audio-visual expression and how the voice-over is scripted, their duration, and so on. But even so, you can still slip in some interesting things at a thematic level. The Take is a pretty cool channel which approaches mostly feminist and progressive topics – things which, for a Romanian audience, or one from a country that is not as diverse and multicultural as the US, might be completely new, even if we do watch the same films, but we lack the same social references. I think that the medium’s accessibility can be compensated with a discourse that, at its core, is pretty complex. Of course, it also has to do with the spectator’s level of availability – to pay attention, to take notes, to re-evaluate some films in which they might not have noticed the same things. I think that it’s possible, and even more so, if I look at people that are ten years younger than us and who have been exposed to diverse discourses at an earlier age; they have naturalized and assimilated these things, and are much less willing to watch a racist film and let it slide, as previous generations did. I think that these problematics should exist in all shapes, especially the most accessible ones – because, honestly, as much as academic discourses are important to me in the long run, I doubt that a lot of people became less misogynistic because they read, say, Judith Butler.

I mean, these things actually respond to different needs. In what concerns teaching video-essays and working with students in a practical sense on them, oftentimes the learning process is quite easy and intuitive. Every time I talk to twenty-something students about YouTube, I feel like they know a lot more things than I do (laughs), that they are more updated than I am, in regards to video genres and the ways in which YouTubers relate to the community, and other things that are part of their immediate cultural horizon, just as European art films are not a part of it, and they learn about them in college for the first time. Whereas YouTube has been there ever since they were in grade or middle school. In terms of actually editing footage, I wouldn’t say that it’s an egalitarian process – yes, it does relate to a high degree of democratizing the means of producing film, especially since all of us have laptops that are quite okay. But I do think that this year has confirmed the fact that not all students and pupils have access to a decent laptop, or even to a smartphone – and if they do, they might be sharing it with their families. So it’s a democratization that is mostly limited to the middle class, to those families that can afford to invest in their children’s education and resources. Apart from that, learning how to edit film it’s easier than ever, and if one takes into account this familiarity with digital media formats, the students catch on quite quickly. And I know that CESI also had a course where their masters’ students were required to create a mash-up.

How to define modern women cca. 1966. A video-essay by Irina Trocan.

At one point you make a taxonomy of certain techniques that are prevalent in video-essays: supercuts, Kuleschow effects, compressions, and digressions (which are a sort of cinematic parenthesis). What other major typologies have you identified? Are there certain predominant discourses in video-essays at large, if one is to understand montage as discourse?

I think that most of what you can see in essay-films you can also find in video-essays, it’s just the fact that it’s quite niche. I’d say there are some influential workshops – like the one at Middlebury College – and, clearly, there is a sort of formation at stake, in which film critics try to purify themselves of “logos”, of logocentric discourses. It’s a tendency that I can feel happening, which is based on a refined and sophisticated cinematic gaze, but which tries to prove something by associating the objects at hand, by using a minimal number of words. I’m not really sure if this is the most accessible way to transmit a certain knowledge of cinema or to educate the essay’s audience, to enable them to arrive at certain deductions, and that’s based on my own experience. For example, ever since I’ve been teaching this video-essay course, which is about two years now, I’ve seen varying examples: some things may be obvious to me because I’m familiar with essay-cinema and the canon of arthouse film, but the students might not feel the same way. Some associations might slip through your hands. For instance, because I’ve been through all of these discussions on the ethics of documentary cinema – whether to show something or not, or whether violent imagery is also a form of violence onto the spectator – some options may seem very clear to me, but I don’t really know whether someone who hasn’t been through those particular classes in Film Studies or has read about it will have a revelation, especially when a video-essay obstinately hides from using the most sensational imagery. 

It’s hard to notice any specific patterns in videographic criticism, be it in terms of editing or audio-visual juxtaposition. The only thing I’d say is that it seems rather typical – and I can’t say for sure whether it’s because online culture predisposes one to a sort of narcissism and cult of personality, or if it’s a necessity, when you’re forced to work without any means of production – for essayists to use their own voice. It’s quite frequent that the video-essayists themselves are part of the object, that their video-essay is self-referential, more so than in the case of a written review or cinephile essay.

In the final part of your book, you make a noticeable pivot onto what you call an “oppositional cinema” – wherein opposition is generally understood as being political in nature. It’s, to date, the most wide-ranging such theoretical writing to be published in Romania on this type of cinema: that is, the Third Cinema, the L.A. Rebellion, and other such non-white, non-Eurocentric movements. What prompted this pivot, beyond the social disparities that you saw as a Fullbright scholar in the United States, in 2017-2018? Few discuss them in Romania outside colleges, there were some sporadic screenings at one point – like, for example, the cineclub which David Schwartz used to organize at Macaz.

Just as you said, this pivot is a mix between autobiographical elements and the fact that, purely as a spectator, it seemed much more interesting for me to delve into political films, because even though I learned a little something about the Third Cinema in school and about what is going on in Africa, about various oppositional movements across the globe, it wasn’t much. I began to have an interest in political cinema and, largely, in the question of the degree and ways in which a political film must be efficient. If we talk about changing mindsets, sure, it’s something, but then again, arthouse films set out to do the same thing. And so then how do we distinguish a political film from an arthouse film that hopes to make its spectators more tolerant (and sometimes they might even succeed at it), but not much aside from that? So I started delving into things related to distribution, starting from a couple of bibliographic sources and trying to draw a parallel to what is going on now. You can’t really prophesize the impact of video-essays, yet you can see some antecedents and see what their expectations were, the possible ways in which they would not just raise more awareness about how mediums function, but also in terms of taking a stand on certain social aspects, in a production that is much cheaper and accessible, but which suffers from obstacles in terms of distribution, or, minimally, a distribution that is not at all standardized.

It also has to do with what people call “virality” and the concept of “spreadability”, but which relates to a very limited window of time. It’s just about the same shelf life that a loaf of bread might have. It certainly helps if it’s a lot of them – both in political cinema and in video-essays, and the more it’s the work of a community that has something to say collectively, the more it spreads, even beyond the spread of the individual films themselves.

As a final question – even though it might sound a bit provincial, I’d turn the gaze toward the local context. You’re an author of video-essays yourself and are probably the most prolific Romanian one. There have been attempts in the past at creating video-essays, some successful – like the group that was presented last year at Europalia – others less so, there have also been individual successful titles, such as Calin Boto’s Empire State Streaming, but there’s no local movement per se. How do you see the Romanian video-essay landscape, and do you think that it has the potential to develop beyond these small experiments? And what would that scenario depend on?

I think that a big step forward would be if someone would pay for this kind of labor. That’s just about the only necessary thing for it to gain traction. What I’ve seen coming from students, young people, or passionate cinephiles that want to express themselves videographically is at the very least interesting. I don’t think that we have a lack of talents, or that we need some sort of really sophisticated productions. I think we need to find ways to connect and socialize film editors with those doing so-called “intellectual labor” in cinema – and maybe these teams could better articulate collective voices.

But I don’t think that we’re slacking behind just because we don’t have a coagulated and constant output, because all around the world in the community there are new people coming in and acclaimed veterans bowing out all constantly, it’s a pretty high rate of mobility – and again, since there’s not a lot of money at stake and there’s no kind of stability, just like a weekly column would offer, as well as a certain kind of attention, a status that is worth working for in the long term. It’s hard to make any kind of predictions, but I’d expect more to pop up, strictly judging by the fact that it’s a form that is increasingly popular. I don’t know if I can guarantee it, or that I can be confident in the fact that some (informal) institutions will appear at one point. Because, honestly, I don’t think anyone has the time. Then again, I wouldn’t really draw a difference between Romania and other countries, between written and videographic critical cultures, even though there are definitely more critics who choose to write, but you can’t expect much in terms of consistency from anyone who has been doing that for more than five years. What I think works in other places and doesn’t yet exist over here are video essays that are commissioned by streaming platforms. Which gives them meaning. They can be much more persuasive and infinitely more diverse than trailers, especially when it comes to arthouse films, but I don’t think that HBO Romania and, even to a lesser degree, Netflix will rush to commission any video-essays from Romania too soon, and they might have a small audience for them anyway. Would this be a tragic loss? I’d say it’d be like just about any loss of creative work potential in Romania, and there’s a lot of it.

In Romania, cinema is still fighting for a respectable place, 120 years later. What I’d like to point out about the local scene is that the main problem – which cinema itself also shares, at least when it comes to essay-film – is that of archives. As long as the Romanian Cinematheque, which should be the main institution to preoccupy itself with the preservation of film heritage, is not actively involved with the community, and as long as The National Film Archives and the National Cinema Council are being very possessive with the works in their portfolio, they only end up feeding this natural tendency, which is to gravitate towards American media and entertainment and to forget our audiovisual history. On the other hand, I can notice that found footage films, documentaries that use such fragments, and films that I could put under the umbrella of essay-cinema are gaining traction. For these kinds of films, archives matter not only because they need to illustrate or prove a certain fact, or to use them as a cue that sets the narrative within a certain time-frame, but rather, they fulfill an aesthetical role that interacts with the film and its fictional plotline. And that is where I truly think that we will be able to have some progress, first of all because festival-fare cinema is led by trends to a various degree, and I think that „slice-of-life” films have gotten a bit old, and that filmmakers from generations that are much more media-savvy are starting to come of age, filmmakers that don’t see the truth as something that lies between two characters, since we’ve all seen that we can skip seeing each-other since March and the only effect is that we’re all a little bit sadder. I think we have to take in the fact that media is a part of our daily existence and we can’t really talk about contemporary realities without discussing its mediated forms.

La noi, cinemaul încă se luptă pentru respectabilitate, 120 de ani mai târziu. Ce aș vrea să spun însă, legat de spațiul românesc, este că marea problemă – pe care o avem în comun și cu cinemaul-eseu – este cea a arhivelor. Atâta vreme cât Cinemateca Română, care ar trebui să fie prima instituție preocupată de prezervarea patrimoniului cinematografic, nu se implică activ, iar câtă vreme ANF și CNC au o atitudine foarte posesivă asupra operelor pe care le au în portofoliu, până la urmă ajung să hrănească tendința naturală a lucrurilor, anume cea de a gravita înspre media americană și spre entertainment, cea de a uita trecutul nostru audiovizual. Pe de altă parte mi se pare că prind avânt filmele found footage, sau documentarele care le integrează, cât și filme pe care le-aș putea numi cinema-eseu. Pentru acest tip de filme, arhivele contează nu doar ca să ilustreze sau demonstreze ceva, ori să marcheze temporal o anumită acțiune, dar au un rol estetic care interacționează cu filmul, cu narațiunea ficțională. Și acolo chiar cred că o să facem progrese, pentru că, odată, cinemaul festivalier este marcat într-o oarecare măsură de mode și cred că feliile de viață s-au cam învechit. Și mai e și faptul că pur și simplu încep să se formeze cineaști dintr-o generație care este mult mai media-savvy, și care nu cred că adevărul este în relațiile dintre personaje, mai ales că am văzut acuma cu toții că putem să nu ne vedem pe viu, din martie și până acum, iar tot ceea ce o să se întâmple e că o să fim un pic mai triști. Trebuie să ne asumăm că media face parte din existența noastră cotidiană și că nu putem vorbi despre realitatea contemporană fără să vorbim și de formele ei mediate.

Clouds of the Tour. A video-essay by Irina Trocan.
Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.