Interview: Gabrielle Stemmer, director of Clean With Me (After Dark)
In the short documentary Clean With Me (After Dark), French director Gabrielle Stemmer edited YouTube and Instagram videos from a community of housewives filming themselves while cleaning their homes.
Gala Hernández: First of all, do you know the desktop film genre? If so, which film(s) inspired you to make yours? Why did you decide to use the computer screen as the space of the film?
Gabrielle Stemmer: I didn’t know the desktop genre. This film was made as my graduation film from La Fémis, for which I had this idea to use these YouTube home cleaning videos. In the editors’ graduation films, we’re forced to use archives. As I was talking to friends, I realized that I had acquired quite phenomenal knowledge about home cleaning videos and that these were actually archives. I thought I would make it the subject of my graduation film. A few weeks later, I saw Kevin B’s film at La Fémis, Transformers The Premake, which I really liked. I figured it was exactly what I wanted to do and that that would be the ideal format for the film. I really appreciated that movie. My film is quite similar to his, in the sense that there’s no voice-over… I watched some of the other films he had done – which you can see on his website – and I asked him to be my tutor. At the same time, Chloe Galibert-Laîné, who works with him, contacted me and I also saw her films My crush was a superstar and Watching the pain of others. Those were the only desktop movies I saw… I didn’t look too hard, because after a while I told myself that I didn’t want to be influenced. I was afraid, not so much of copying someone, but rather of not allowing myself to do things because someone else had done them before me. But it’s a format that I think is great, I want to do other things with it.
GH: Could you explain the origin of the project ? How did you get in touch with these “clean with me” videos ? Some of these videos have a lot of views, I assume the community that consumes them is quite large. Are the producers/Youtubers who post them a small number, or rather large?
GS: My impression is that it’s a big community, but I haven’t found any concrete data for the number of household channels on YouTube. There are hundreds of YouTubers. There are a dozen of them very famous, and it goes up to the woman who has only ten views per video. There is a pretty broad spectrum. Then the community of women who watch them is infinitely superior. Sometimes there are a million views on these videos. Even assuming that some of them watch them again, that’s still a lot. For example, the videos of Love Meg have easily one million views. 80% must be by other housewives or heads of households and then rest must be from people like me, who got there through other channels, and I guess some men among them. As these women control the comments and delete a lot of them, there are never any negative comments on these videos. I’ve seen a few comments from men who commented more on the look of the YouTuber, but not a lot. Sometimes I’ve seen comments from men saying “I’m going to show this to my wife”. And often they would get some replies afterwards, other women who would say “you should do some cleaning too”. So there is a beginning of awareness. There are a few videos made by men, but not household channels run by men that I know of. On the other hand, it is often the couples who vlog, showing their daily life in the family, and you can see a man doing the housework. But maybe it’s also the YouTube algorithms game: maybe they figured out that I’m interested in seeing women and they don’t show me men…
I’ve been watching “clean with me” videos for at least 5-6 years. I used to watch a lot of YouTube videos made by younger women, beauty or makeup tutorials, and at one point it drifted and I got a “clean with me” recommendation. For a long time, I used to watch these videos for fun, two or three a week, without cleaning my house at all, strangely it was not linked. Because the principle is that these videos are made to encourage women to clean at the same time. “Let’s go girls! “50% of the use of the video is that, and the other 50% is ASMR, because some of these videos relax some people. In the comments, we feel this division – some people are motivated to clean up, others say “Wow, that felt good, that’s so relaxing”. I belonged to the second category: the pleasure, not of cleaning per se, but of seeing their homes, their families, their children, over the years… Like a series. And at the same time, in my case, always with a distance, because I couldn’t identify with those women, I didn’t have the same ideals as them. And so I was driven by curiosity, I wondered “How far will they go?” There are microevents in the videos, things that you can guess… I’m trying to track down the less bright signs in their lives.
GH: The film begins by respecting the recording of the computer screen as the only space and as instrument for the mise en scène, but very soon you start to use zooms, movements within this space, then a grid of videos that no longer has much to do with a computer screen but rather looks more like a video surveillance or control room grid. Why were these variations necessary?
GB: At first I thought of doing a sequence shot, but I saw that it was impossible to do and I had to edit and trick. I realised very soon, and very quickly discarded the idea of staying in full screen all the time. I think it can be done, but it’s more demanding for the viewer and it would require more preparation beforehand for the filmmaker. I’ve done a lot of tricks in my film, a lot of it is not my screen; but what I did was mainly fixing the moments that were technically tricky. So I actually never tried a real complete desktop version, probably because my model was Kevin B. Lee’s video. Lee doesn’t hesitate to zoom, cut, … It seemed inevitable to me so that it wouldn’t be too slow, it was a question of rhythm. I realized that, as soon as it is full screen and you can see the desktop bar, it is less immersive than when you’re inside the window, when you enter the video. Entering the videos, and distorting them, that was my project from the start, and that’s what happens quite quickly in my film.
GH: What do you think these videos say about the status of women in the 21st century? What thoughts do you get from them? Several of these women mention that it’s therapeutic for them, some of them suffering from anxiety or depression, why do you think it can be therapeutic? There’s also the fact that some of them clean during the night, which makes their activity invisible to the rest of their family members, what does this erasing of their effort say about their existence?
GB: The title of the film refers to a genre of clean with me videos called “clean with me after dark”. There are several sub-genres: “clean with me marathon” (the whole house), “clean with me 8h” (which they condense into 50 minutes) and “clean with me after dark” – which consists of cleaning during the night when everyone is sleeping, and which is often the most relaxing genre for people. In fact, at the base of the project, what I wondered was why they would turn on a camera to film themselves, because for me there was a video surveillance camera dimension that was very present. Not only are they cleaning up, but they’re filming themselves to prove that they’ve done it. For me, it was self-surveillance: even when the husband is not there, they’ll put an eye on them to control what they are doing and stop them from hanging around, from doing nothing. Self-motivation by self-surveillance. And I also think they do it to show their husband everything they’ve done during the day, because by definition housework is invisible work. What happens when you see what you normally can’t see – that is, what American housewives do during the day?
Furthermore, after watching the film, an occupational psychologist told me that what they do – filming themselves doing these tasks and accelerating the video – is a typical defense mechanism of hard working individuals who practice self-acceleration. When a work is too hard, you accelerate your actions so that it goes faster, so that it’s over soon and you can’t think. And that’s what a character in the film literally says: cleaning up prevents you from thinking. Also, the link between housework and depression has been proven, there are also pathologies linked to the fear of dirt…
But when they clean during the night because the children are sleeping, it becomes their second day of work, it becomes a night of work. They are always the last ones to go to bed and the first ones to get up. When the children and the husband are asleep, there is no one to get in their way. In the film, one of them says: “It’s night, I’m tired, I’m going to clean up. The children are asleep and my husband is asleep because he has to get up early in the morning”. Knowing that she also has to get up early to make breakfast, which shows the total self-sacrifice of these women. Night is the time when they catch up on what they didn’t have time to do during the day.
GH: Can you talk about the choice of music ?
GB: There is only music that comes from their YouTube videos. The basic “clean with me” is always a little intro where they talk and then some music that goes on while they’re cleaning up fast. There are some that are not accelerated but are much less watched. Acceleration is a guarantee of quality. And sometimes there’s a voice-over where they give advice, explain what they’re doing, and then there are special “clean with me” with no voice and even no music. But usually it’s special music for YouTube: there are companies that make this music, they have a subscription and in exchange they can use this music in the videos that remain monetized – since they make money from the videos. I bought the license for these musics. All the images and sounds in the movie are from YouTube or Instagram, I didn’t add anything.
GH: There’s a moment of silence just after the first music where I have the impression that you’ve recreated in post-production the sounds of the videos that I imagine had originally music, and this quasi-silence gives the videos a very different, more real dimension, without the post-production artifice that makes these tasks look entertaining and joyful. This exposure, this nakedness also appears when you zoom in and freeze frame the face of one of the women or when you bring the video closer to show a detail, such as the messages and words (love, dream, life is good, thankful, etc.) that decorate the walls of these houses or the hidden reflection of a husband on the mirror. What were you looking for with these formal strategies?
GB: “Clean with me” is always accelerated and with music. So from the beginning I asked myself: what happens if I take the music off and slow the video down? In the sequence you’re referring to, at the beginning I didn’t put noises, it was just silence. Then I thought I’d recreate the real atmosphere of their house, with the idea of really living their daily experience – in real life, they probably do their housework in silence – and to highlight their extreme solitude and their concrete gestures. And since I was determined not to add anything from outside the Internet, I just took some sounds from Internet household videos and roughly wedged them. I think I just added one or two sound effects later, in my editing room, like the little dog – so I skipped my own rule.
Concerning these strategies, I wanted the look on these videos and on these women to change as I went along. At the end of the film, the same video from the beginning doesn’t make you laugh at all. The moment of zooming is a way of pointing out details that are wrong – dust that no one sees, reflections… It’s about moving the gaze. When it’s full frame, you don’t realize what you’re looking at, if you start zooming in very hard on the image, you see it in a different way. You start to wonder about the furniture, you get closer to the house – the house that is a big subject of the film. The words I frozen are really my favorite thing in these videos. The houses, the women, the videos are very similar. All of them, without exception, have words posted in their homes. Sort of mantras that can be read as self-consolations. When you read “home sweet home” on the wall, you must tell yourself “I’m lucky, I have a home”. During the making of the film, I discovered that this is a hyper-religious circle which sentences like: “there are two men in my life, my husband and God”. But this specific side, we don’t see it much in the film, because it was too much “God and war” – with the military at the end, which I hadn’t foreseen either. I preferred to leave small religious clues – you can see churches on Google Maps, a Bible…
I had a shot that I deleted because the YouTuber didn’t give me the rights where there was a photo gallery on the wall: her children, her husband and Jesus. The three were side by side, and she was not in any of the pictures. But as I didn’t want to drive the nail in, I reluctantly removed that aspect of the videos.
Very often they have the word “thankful”, but you wonder, thanks to whom, why, for what? They are grateful for what God has given them, but to me it also shouts “tell me thank you”! Isn’t it rather that they want to be thanked?
Besides, it’s quite new that you can see inside people’s homes at this point, you can see the fashions… It says a lot about how people see life. It’s words like you see in billboards, self-persuasion. In fact, there’s another kind of YouTube video, which is the morning routine, where there is always the gratitude diary. In the morning routine, you have to spend some time writing down what you are thankful for. It is, once again, self-persuading that everything is fine.
Concerning the man we see in the film, who is holding the camera, he is filming his wife doing housework, but he could do it too! He checks that the frame is good. He watches. So his presence attests to the absence of all the other husbands, who share the same space as their wives. Men in “clean with me” often get fired by women. These pristine homes are territories not meant to be inhabited at all. It is a domestic space from which women make it their ultimate nest and men are excluded, as a kind of revenge.
GH: You later show on the Instagram account of one of them also motivational messages, very optimistic and encouraging. Why was it important for you to include them in the film?
GB: These are messages that they send to each other to help each other, to encourage each other. Instagram is really the network of community and mutual aid for them. They post videos where they confess to having had a horrible day, they’re more honest and natural on Instagram, because it’s more immediate than YouTube. The women on Instagram that I show in my film are not the ones who have millions of views, they’re the ones who have several thousand subscribers but they don’t make a living from it. Cause there are YouTube women who buy huge houses, who are extremely rich thanks to these videos. It’s a big business with several categories. In my film, the further you go, the more you get on the “small” YouTubers, and the more frankly they talk about the life of a woman isolated with children. The sentences they give as examples, taken literally, are not at all encouraging: “how comforting it is to think that the most beautiful moment of your life hasn’t happened yet”. It means that your life so far has sucked. Tomorrow will be better, but it means that today is awful – and I think they don’t realize that they’re admitting that with these sentences. It comes with a guilt of not being good enough.
GH: Apart from this compulsion for the household, there are also other central subjects in your film, rather in the second part: motherhood, marriage, family, mental health problems, the absence of the husband. It feels as if the second part of the film sheds light on other dimensions that are linked to the household. But are these mental health problems so prevalent in the “clean with me” community, or was it your research that led you to discover them? And the absence of husbands…?
GB: I assume that if I came across the videos, without digging for months and months, it’s because it’s a strong trend. Depression is present in a significant proportion. Some people take medication, and even for the superstars for whom everything is going great, there’s always a moment when they confess that it doesn’t go well. The absence of husbands is related to the fact that there are plenty of military wives. On Instagram, when I was making the film, I discovered that they had organized themselves into a supportive community with each other, particularly as military wives – since these are communities that are used to creating networks of sociability, etc. They’re geographically dispersed, but they’re together on Instagram, on groups reserved for military wives. For example, the one we see in the film – She gets me – is a group for women suffering from depression. There were seven of them, one for each day of the week, and four of them are military wives or their husbands are absent. Every day of the week, one of them takes over the Instagram account and explains her day. I’ve never seen a man in their stories; they’re alone with their children. There’s one named Mary, who you hear at the end of my movie, whose husband is in the military and is never there. Besides, when their husbands are there, they post less.
The residential areas in North America where they live are very small and isolated; they’re really alone. In this context, YouTube brings them social recognition and Instagram brings sociability. In the beginning, they go on YouTube to show what they do because they’re proud of it and to give themselves a goal for the day. You probably clean up better when you know you’re going to be seen by more people. As YouTube has become a great business platform, Instagram has become more intimate and liberated, as the Instagram stories fade away after some time. For the past year or two, on Instagram, there have been women saying, “Watch out, what you see on Instagram is not reality. They want to show themselves from all angles, and not just their strengths.
GH: Why use Google Earth to locate these testimonies? There is a kind of feeling of accumulation, seriality and homogenization between all these voices and then the houses in the residential suburbs, the emblematic place of the American dream, are also all similar to each other. Was that your intention?
GB: The first idea was to go and see where they live so that we could see how isolated they are. I also wanted their voices to blend together to be one voice. On Google Maps, you can see how close these little individualities perhaps are to each other and all these houses on the outside, you don’t know what’s going on inside – but in ten houses there can be ten extreme solitudes.
The streets and the houses are obviously reminiscent of cinema imagery, on one side Carpenter, or John Waters’ film Serial Mom, which is a little bit the other side of the subject… These views of the upper neighbourhood reminded me of The Sims as well, a game I played a lot. When you go into Google Street View, the houses in 3D are distorted. Kevin B. Lee had told me that at that point the film was turning into a horror movie and that I became a peeping Tom trying to get inside their homes. Indeed, who’s watching? That horror movie dimension is definitely there.
GH: Do you think that the representation and online presentation of their lives, their extimacies, is cathartic and positive for these women? Basically, can interaction, self-exhibition and Internet connectivity save them from a kind of obvious isolation that was inevitable in the pre-Internet era? Also, did you contact these women to tell them that you are using their images in your film?
GB: I contacted all of them, La Fémis wanted me to ask their permission. A third of them replied positively, two or three said no and the rest did not reply. Jessica saw the film, she’s the one with the channel Keep calm and clean. I sent her the film, with some precautions and warnings, and at first she didn’t answer me. After several months, I sent it back to her and she said the film was great, but I don’t know if she watched it or not… I didn’t send it to the others.
Concerning the Internet issue, it’s complex. On one hand, women are self-perpetuating in unrealistic images of the perfect mother and the perfect woman, and that is toxic. These videos are watched by very young girls, 13, 14 years old, who want to imitate them. This is dangerous because it maintains an extremely oppressive culture. But on the other hand, on a daily basis, it allows them to socialize on an unprecedented scale. Besides, it’s the first time that a woman can carry a speech without any filter, without intermediaries, and that it is broadcast to millions of people. Potentially it’s a great power. There are beginnings of reformulations of feminist principles or self-affirmation, of speaking out, which are positive. There is a real power in social networks, the capacity to become aware of the suffering of someone we don’t know in an unprecedented way. These bottles in the sea are available to everyone. These women’s words did not exist 50 years ago. And they support each other, they’re friends, they back up each other.