The next 2014 Prix Ars Electronica prizewinner we’d like to spotlight is “Femme Chanel – Emma Fenchel,” a work that 19-year-old student Sarah Oos submitted for prize consideration in the u19 – Create Your World category.
This video is a found footage montage in which the artist edited together scenes from several previously existing films. Her series of cuts and splices interweaving formally well-matched sequences from other motion pictures creates a level of meaning that totally differs from what the directors of the original films intended.
Sarah Oos uses in her found footage project scenes from the advertisement Chanel No5 and from the movies Coco Before Chanel from Anne Fontaine, Priceless from Pierre Salvadori, Hunting and Gathering from Claude Berri and The Skin I Live In from Pedro Almodóvar.
The point of departure is a commercial for the fragrance Chanel No. 5 entitled “Night Train” (France 2009) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and featuring Audrey Tautou, as well as other films (“Coco Chanel,” “Hunting and Gathering,” “Priceless”) in which Tautou has starred. The revision of the sequence of the cuts as well as the insertion of other material modifies the message of the perfume commercial, whereby the initially demure Audrey Tautou—playing a stereotyped female image propagated by advertising—mutates into a man-eating femme fatale.
The Prix Ars Electronica jury was especially taken by the tremendous interpretational latitude that this work permits:
It’s interesting that novel narrative twists even have a way of occurring to those who’ve already seen this work several times.
But allow yourself to be convinced: http://prix2014.aec.at/prixwinner/14249/
We recently had the opportunity to interview Sarah Oos about this project. During our chat, she told us how her film came about and why her work on it aroused her passion for film projects.
Hallo Sarah – Is “Femme Chanel – Emma Fenchel” your first film project?
Sarah Oos: I once made a short film for a Video class in school [High School for Artistic Design]. I did the storyboard myself, wrote the concept, shot the footage, and did everything else that went into it. At the YOUKI Youth Media Festival that I’ve often taken part in, I was a member of the crew on somewhat larger film projects, and also got some behind-the-scenes experience. But this is my first found footage project.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a found footage montage like this?
Sarah Oos: This is just something that fascinates me—the importance of the sequence of clips that get edited together, the effect the different scenes have on each other, and what viewers then perceive and associate with them, how a person’s character is. Since I got started working on film editing in school, I watch films in a totally different way. I pay a lot closer attention to how it was made, or why my girlfriends are bored by certain films that I think are really intense.
So, that’s the backstory of this project. I was interested in how certain scenes affected one another and how this could be manipulated.
You mentioned that you were fascinated by certain films that your girlfriends found boring. What makes a film good in your opinion?
Sarah Oos: It’s in the eye of the beholder. You can clearly differentiate between indie films and Hollywood productions. For instance, in contrast to many of my girlfriends, I’m interested in art. They prefer films that feature a lot of action. That’s not the way I am. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the film’s content, and I don’t care so much about whether there’s a lot happening in it.
What drew you to films starring Audrey Tautou?
Sarah Oos: Audrey Tautou simply has the whole package. In her films, the character she plays is usually a shy, cute, young woman who’s very feminine and whose charms enchant everyone she meets. So I was fascinated by the prospect of transforming precisely this persona into a femme fatale, of unmasking her.
So does that mean that you already had a story in mind when you went in search of the appropriate film clips?
Sarah Oos: No. Actually, at the start, I didn’t know exactly how this would turn out in the end. I only knew that I wanted to make a new film out of existing material, and the narrative arc, as it now stands, took shape as the project progressed.
It was a long, drawn-out process with a lot of ups and downs. I was thrilled every time I found a sequence that was a perfect match to the previous scene. For example, when the female lead turns away, and then, in the next scene—which is taken from a different film—turns back again. You have to try this out in a lot of variations to see how it works.
So you simply started with an ad spot for a Chanel fragrance …
Sarah Oos: Right. I screened all the films I wanted to use and drew up a sequence graphic—that is, I put down in writing at which precise point a particular clip fit in. I also worked a lot from memory and figured out which scenes would work in which sequence. Then, little by little, the film took shape.
The scene at the end in which Emma Fenchel crosses out the names—that’s the only scene I shot myself, since it’s essential to the film’s narrative arc and it’s the decisive point at which she becomes a murderess. But this scene as well originally came from a film, though in it there were other items on the list. But I wanted to copy this scene as closely as possible, so I made an effort to shoot from the exact same angle with just the right lighting.
How did you come up with the idea of German subtitles that are totally unrelated to the spoken dialogue?
Sarah Oos: This is manipulation on an additional level. I wanted to adapt the characters’ spoken words to the video’s plot and simultaneously give rise to an ironic aftertaste just like, for example, Quentin Tarantino does in his film “Pulp Fiction.” My aim was to create something witty that gave viewers interpretational latitude. In doing so, I tweaked the message once again, you might say.
Did you edit the film first and then give some thought to the subtitles?
Sarah Oos: Right, I did them afterwards. And that was another long, drawn-out process. I have no idea how many times I screened the film and revised the subtitles because I still had the feeling that they weren’t quite right yet. And even if you can’t speak French—as in my case—there are still things you just intuitively understand. That’s why I made sure that, despite all the modifications, the elements still fit together to some extent. That’s why I translated some things literally. With others, I tried to match the text to the lip movements of the characters on screen. Sometimes, that wasn’t the least bit easy.
At the moment, the legal aspects are still up in the air, since you don’t own the rights to the film sequences you used. Did you previously give any thought to this?
Sarah Oos: I realize that you’re actually not allowed to do this, but I simply didn’t pay any attention to it because my objective wasn’t to make money with this. And I don’t put this forth as my work. That’s why, in the credits at the end, it says “Project by Sarah Oos” and not “Film by Sarah Oos,” since I didn’t shoot the scenes myself.
In the beginning, I didn’t give much thought to this because I proceeded under the assumption that this video would only be shown in school anyway. But now I’ve won … something I hadn’t expected!
Why did you decide to submit this project to the Prix Ars Electronica?
Sarah Oos: My teacher advised me to submit it. But for a long time, it wasn’t certain that I’d be able to enter it because it wasn’t finished yet. Then, as the submission deadline approached, I again worked very intensively on the project. For example, in this phase, I did the opening scene that illustrates the anagram shift from Femme Chanel to Emma Fenchel. That was the last thing I worked on, and then I could submit the completed film on the very last day before the entry deadline.
I really didn’t expect that the film would be so well received. You see this project a whole year long, and it gets to the point that it’s nothing special anymore. If I could, I’d love to just completely erase my memories of having worked on this project in order to be able to consider the finished product objectively for once. Now, I’ve simply seen it too many times. I’m looking forward to a time, 10 years from now, when I’ll be able to step back and consider it with a bit more distance. Right now, I see it from a totally different perspective because I’m fully aware of how each scene was made.
Has anything changed for you since having won the Prix Ars Electronica?
Sarah Oos: I was delighted that the announcement that I had won made the front page of the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten [local daily paper]. That was funny, because immediately afterwards, I started receiving congratulations—especially on Facebook—from a lot of people I’m not even acquainted with. The way it usually was in the past was that I knew somebody who won something, and I always wondered how it would be if that happened to me. And now I’ve experienced it myself. Now, in school, everybody knows me. That’s pretty unusual.
Do you have any role models in the film & video scene?
Sarah Oos: Yeah, for example Wes Anderson, because his way of making films is completely different. I find his films highly aesthetic, and they nevertheless have excellent, sophisticated plots. I’m fascinated by how he does that.
One of my favorite films is “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, but I didn’t use clips from it because she plays a totally different role than she otherwise does and also looks completely different. But I just love this film because it’s so beautifully, wonderfully made. Nevertheless, Audrey Tautou isn’t my favorite actress. Actually I don’t even have one. I’m kind of boring in this way.
Do you have more projects in the planning stage?
Sarah Oos: In October, I’ll begin my studies, majoring in graphic arts and photography at Linz Art University. In fact, this video project was the first time I ever got involved in film editing, because my passion is more in the area of graphic design. But making this film has also been a lot of fun. Presumably, I’ll never shoot films myself, but I certainly could imagine doing another found footage project sometime. I simply enjoy visualizing things.
The video Femme Chanel – Emma Fenchel is presented within the u19 Exhibit at Ars Electronica Festival 20014 from 4. to 8. September. There, every year, the top 15 of the projects submitted in the category u19 – Create Your World are issued.