Mediated Desire: Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand Interviewed by Simon Wu

Three films that explore the effect of the internet on intimacy and connection.

Street view of a young man walking through a Chinatown storefront with neon Chinese letters in the window. The man holds a grey, button-down shirt over his head to protect himself from the rain.

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand, still from Negative Two, 2019, digital video, 28 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

I first met Daniel Chew in 2018 at a discussion group with other Asian American artists that he and his collaborator, Tin Nguyen, were organizing as part of CFGNY, their collective art-fashion project. I met Micaela Durand similarly, through friends of friends, and we talked about languid female narrators and the publishing world. As we partied and ate dinners in Chinatown together, our conversations led me to see the art world differently, perhaps more shrewdly filtered through race and class. The two met in their first year of film school at NYU and returned to filmmaking after a stint in the artworld––Durand as the director of Paul Chan’s press, Badlands Unlimited, and Chew as a multi-faceted artist. They returned when they could explore film on their own terms, through a more collaborative, intuitive model of filmmaking than they had encountered in school.

Durand and Chew’s films are interested in the effect of the internet on intimacy and connection. Their protagonists are often misled, fall in love with, or driven crazy by the fantasies, myths, and versions of people that the internet helps them conjure. In 38, their newest film, a woman becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, a much younger Gen Z TikTok person, as she considers her own aging. Their films feel shimmery and reflective, punctuated very intuitively with meme captions and text messages as voiceovers. They look like what it feels like to live today: constantly connected and always searching.

—Simon Wu

Simon WuMicaela said in a different interview that you try to make films about the internet that don’t show the internet. And you’ve explored different formal strategies to convey it: captions in First, voiceover and text in Negative Two, dream sequences in 38. How does it feel to translate the internet to the medium of film?

Daniel ChewWhenever I watch films on the internet, I find that most narratives fall into the trap of rendering technology as a gimmick. There’s this obsession with newness that I think we’re trying to work against. Our films are less about technology and more about how technology has influenced the way we live a life. Technology is often translated very literally on screen in the form of interfaces, and to avoid this we challenged ourselves to try to emulate or recreate the feeling of the internet using only the language of film. We started with subtitles in First because it is also a metaphor for the internet as being its own kind of language.

Micaela DurandFilms about online life tend to focus on technology, VFX, but don’t get to the heart of how we feel talking to someone on the other side of the screen. What is their voice like? What makes us return to them? We were trying to get at what makes that experience intimate and personal while also feeling like you’re a part of something larger. For First we were digging through all these Instagram accounts of teenagers and writing down the way they said things: all the misspellings, the intentional misspellings, any details that made that world their own. We mined the architecture of their exchanges in order to represent it cinematically.

A small pink plastic mirror with cat ears sits in the center of the frame surrounded by other convenience store items. The reflection of a young woman's face is in the frame of the mirror. A yellow subtitle below reads "do you like feet stuff"

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand, still from first, 2019, digital video, 12 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

DCI think, especially with these three films, it’s about desire and how desires are mediated through our phones and how that plays out in our life physically. We are trying to show an embodied experience of the internet that is often not thought about.

SWI noticed, across many of your films, that you both love reflections. Shimmery, mercurial-looking surfaces that shift––whether it’s a reflection in a top-floor apartment window or the horoscope scene in Negative Two or the water in 38. Can you say more about what sort of images attract you? What sort of images do you want to stay away from?

MDWe were trying to make images that imitate what it feels like to be online: how you can lose time, be fragmented, dislocated, suspended. The way we consume stories today is hypnotic, especially through Instagram and TikTok; in short bursts we repeat again and again and again. This is the kind of image and rhythm we wanted to recreate, one that hypnotizes you until it’s interrupted by something else that can haunt you. These images also allow you to project yourself onto them.

DCWhat is most important to us is the emotional journey of a character. These more abstract images serve to capture the alienation and loneliness that is unavoidable when making work about the internet.

A fragmented film still doubles the profile of a woman's face as she looks down at her phone. A man smiles at her from the right side if the frame and another man is passing by behind her.

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand, still from Negative Two, 2019, digital video, 28 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

SWEven in 38 those interludes of the younger woman loop, as you’re saying, like a TikTok. It was employed toward this feeling of insistence, of anxiety or preoccupation…

DC… and also obsession or trauma.

SWYour films very often feature Asian American actors, but the experiences they depict aren’t necessarily particular to Asian American people (Negative Two is maybe an exception), which leads me to think of them as somewhere between intentionally and incidentally Asian American. How do you think about casting and race within your films?

DCThese three films actually came out of a larger feature film script. They are sequels to each other in the sense that they all exist within the same world and are conceptually aligned, but don’t necessarily connect narratively. The characters are all Asian because in the feature film they were narratively connected.

So much work about race and identity in the US context, especially gay narratives, revolves around tropes of tradition, heritage, and the immigrant-parent experience. I think we are specifically avoiding that. Our films are more about how you are racialized by others, how being raced affects how you exist in the world, and how your interactions on the internet are also affected by that.

MDThere aren’t many films I’ve seen where people of color are just living their lives in the same way white protagonists get to on screen. I think in our case, it’s been harder to find funding for what we want to make, which is a more nuanced portrait of people that look like us and our friends.

SWI know that you often work with non-professional actors, and you work very collaboratively with small crews. How has your process changed, grown, or refined over the course of three films.

MDThe characters we come up with are never complete until we meet someone who can give that role a more interesting life. We found most of our main actors on social media. They were people who had never acted before but were very open to the experience. We were lucky to be in conversation with all of them; they really helped us expand the world of the characters.

DCEspecially with Mae, who is the star of First. She really opened our eyes to how Gen Z deals with the internet. Mae has an ironic distance to her online persona, similar to how the internet was before platforms like Facebook. Getting to know her, we could sense how we, as millennials, have become almost earnest about our online identities. And of course, a 38-year-old has a completely different relationship to all this. In a sense, each film is a depiction of a different micro-generation.

SWThere’s an amazing shot in Negative Two (right before the title sequence, around 7:45) where the camera is trained on Eric, and then, as if distracted, moves toward a woman on the street who happens to be taking a selfie. It makes me think about the erotics of surveillance, that a certain generation of young people is increasingly okay with or even finds pleasure in being watched. How do you think about this space between surveillance and representation?

DCThere’s this weird impulse to willingly present ourselves to surveillance, this need to upload your information––

SW—voluntarily.

Half of a selfie of a young Asian woman's face wearing shiny lip gloss and mascara is shown in the picture frame. It is horizontal so that the middle of her face is at the top edge of the image frame. She looks down at the camera while pursing her lips.

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand, still from 38, 2021, digital video, 24 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

MDThe characters struggle with the same questions we do: the question of when to perform, how, and for whom. We all navigate that complicity, especially in New York City. In New York, everyone is either performing or on hiatus, and even the hiatus can be performative.

SWIn both 38 and Negative Two, there are very particular sex scenes. How did you think about those moments of connection and intimacy?

DCSex is mediated by the same forces that are mediating desire and our activities through the internet. We are also interested in perversion and what it means to explore perversion through desire, because desire is complicated. It should be the space where you can practice or enact weird power dynamics, just to know what they feel like.

I had a really interesting conversation about 38 with one of my friends. She was talking about lesbian desire, and how she loved the sex scene in 38 because it reflected the idea of lesbians having also internalized the male gaze on a woman’s body.

MDThat’s women in general. We’re used to watching how we’re watched. It influences our relations, how we see each other, and our sense of self. 38 is about that: women watching women, how psychologically violent it can get, against others, against oneself.

SWMany of your films are about this failed pursuit of genuine connection via the internet. Sometimes it’s there; sometimes it isn’t. Maybe First is the most idyllic or romantic in that regard. How did you think about the role of some kind of “genuine connection” within your films?

DCI think genuine connection isn’t a continuous event but maybe happens in flashes during a never-ending search.

MDIn Negative Two, I see his search as complicated. It’s not just about connecting with a guy on an app but also figuring out his pleasure by trying things that work and things that don’t work. Whether he meets or gets the guy in the end we’ll never know. What we’re more interested in are those moments when we open ourselves up to the risk of loneliness and failure, and the power that has.

Daniel Chew and Micaela Durand’s latest film 38 will screen at the New York Film Festival as part of Currents Program 1: Acts of Seeing on September 30 and October 2.

Simon Wu writes and curates. He is based in Brooklyn.

Miasmic Dread and Inexplicable Lightness: Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki's 2 Lizards Reviewed by Simon Wu
Still from 2 Lizards by Meriem Bennani two lizards dancing in unison
Related
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Amy Gall
A duo-tone portrait of author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. The background is a dark slate blue and the photo of Sycamore is light pink. Sycamore's hand covers her face and presses her chunky beaded necklace against her mouth.

With her latest book, The Freezer Door, Sycamore breaks down language and genre to confront intimacy, the politics of gay bars, and to find the communities we desire.

BOMB #154 Preview: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Amy Gall
Mbs Fd 6

In this excerpt from her interview in BOMB’s winter 2021 issue, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discusses activism, gay bars, and her forthcoming book, The Freezer Door.

Portfolio by Malcolm Peacock
Malcom Peacock Single Pages Min