Through a Screen Darkly: A Conversation with Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew

Through a Screen Darkly: A Conversation with Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew

Like the nuclear family, the internet shapes us whether or not we choose to relate to it. In 38, the final short in a triptych by filmmakers Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew, a woman approaching middle age becomes obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, whom she encounters only through the prism of social media. The new girlfriend is young, hot, and confidently provocative—or else knows how to manipulate the channels through which she is perceived to appear that way. 38’s protagonist takes these qualities for granted and studies them with the cautious piety of a disciple still testing her belief. Attempting to calm her vexed infatuation, she consults a friend: she wants to know if he finds the new girlfriend attractive. “I don’t fantasize about flat images,” he responds. The sentiment contains a little white lie, the same white lie many of us wield hopefully, defensively every day. Who wouldn’t like to believe that the mysterious, intimate terrain of their desire is impervious to the contorting deceptions of the world wide web?

The films that make up this series—First, Negative Two, and 38—are invested in this hopeful suspension of disbelief, and together create an atmosphere in which it is continually tested. The internet appears variably as a site of adolescent play and a debauched public square, where atomized, overworked souls confront and combat their loneliness. In the films, its architecture can never be escaped. People log off, but they never quite leave the internet behind: its warping tendencies are reproduced everywhere in New York, a city full of mirrors and strange reflections, and its interruptions—which masquerade under the polite banner of “notifications”—punctuate and also produce the conditions of ordinary life.

Released between 2019 and 2021, these films are now playing in a collection on the Criterion Channel. I spoke over Zoom with the filmmaking duo about the project’s genesis and collective effect.

How did you decide to start directing together?

Daniel Chew: We went to NYU and began working together while we were in a sophomore-year class called Sight and Sound. In that class, the students were divided into film crews that would rotate between different production roles. Micaela and I were already friends, we had similar film tastes, and we were both disillusioned with a lot of NYU’s film classes, which required students to pour money into their films. We were looking for a way to express ourselves cheaply, and we found that in the art world, where things were more DIY. We were specifically interested in internet art, and the idea that you could make something in your bedroom and then release it into the world. So, we started trying to find a creative outlet outside of school, hanging out around New York.

Micaela Durand: I remember one of Daniel’s films involved him getting up to Hula-Hoop in front of the screen. He was more interested in a conceptual approach to narrative, and I guess you could say I was into pained protagonists—someone usually died in my films. I think the films we make together still embody our distinct styles, but we’ve found a way to be in dialogue.

The movement was inspiring because people were doing their own weird thing behind the screen, uploading it, and calling it art. A thing then was to take a source file that existed online and transform it, have it ricochet from artist to artist, and as in a TikTok, the source became less interesting than the versions out there. We loved that—how a story can form like a tumbleweed.

Top of page: 38; above: First
Negative Two

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