Chloe Galibert-Laine and Kevin B. Lee’s Bottled Songs 1-4 is an epistolary essay film in which the duo exchange four video letters, with each filmmaker authoring two segments apiece, that interrogate the audio/visual techniques of assorted terrorist propaganda videos, ranging from low res phone uploads to professionally produced feature-length projects. Jumping off from and expanding upon Lee’s own 2014 Transformers: The Premake, a self-described “desktop documentary” that invigorated the largely genre-bound Screenlife gimmick with a healthy dose of Harun Farocki and Chris Marker, he and Galibert-Laine deconstruct the way various ISIS YouTube videos utilize the formal qualities of traditional filmed entertainment to maximize the effectiveness of their messaging. In the first section, Galibert-Laine describes a video that she has been obsessed with for years, a seemingly simple (if brutal) cell phone video that shows ISIS fighters marching a column of prisoners through the desert until they are eventually summarily executed. As she points out, there are multiple cameras visible in the sequence, being wielded by various militants, which leads to the obvious question of why this particular shot, from this particular angle? What are the implications of these specific choices?
The second section finds Lee deconstructing a feature-length ISIS film, how it functions as myth-making, and its use of sophisticated transitions between scenes that mimic action film iconography-slow motion, different kinds of dissolves, and even special effects. In the third section, Galibert-Laine focuses on an ISIL “superstar,” a photogenic young man who appears across numerous clips and videos and takes on a kind of star-persona aura. Curious as to who he really is, she goes down an internet rabbit hole investigating his various roles and if it’s possible to get a sense of the real person behind them. Lee returns with the fourth segment, as he views faux-news segments involving British journalist John Cantlie; Cantlie was kidnapped by terrorists and now fronts (against his will, seemingly) various propaganda videos, his presence imbuing them with a manufactured patina of journalistic integrity. It’s a fascinating menagerie of ideas and techniques, all displayed via screens that pile up layers upon layers of digital information — YouTube videos, google searches, text windows, news websites, digital editing programs, and so on — that all overlap and represent physical labor of a sort on the part of the filmmakers. The proliferation of screens within screens takes on some of the formal properties of the edit, while the filmmaker’s letters to each other – typed out onscreen as well as narrated – reveal the hand of the author in curious ways. Far from being merely an academic exercise, although it would be very useful as a pedagogical tool, Bottled Songs 1-4 allows for all manner of discursive inquiry, each segment taking on some of the mimetic qualities of wiling away an afternoon on the internet. It’s a process of linkages, some more intuitive than others, that taken together create a portrait of 21st century images and how we manage them. Both an ontological and epistemological project, the film ends with a URL for viewers to submit other videos, suggesting the possibility of an endless series of Songs. It’s an important project, even if one senses that we’ll never really be able to make sense of this avalanche of digitized visual information. Certainly, Lee remains one of our most important working filmmakers.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 3.