A Conversation with The Viewing Booth director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz and Daniel Witkin
I met Ra’anan Alexandrowicz in preparation for this article at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on the first day of First Look 2020, the festival in which Ra’anan’s film The Viewing Booth was to have its New York premiere before the festival’s unfortunate cancellation due to COVID-19. After a protracted period of emailing and planning alongside our own virus preparations, Alexandrowicz and I were at last able to connect roughly a week and a half later over the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom and get into many of the ideas raised by his film that we had wanted to explore in person.
The Viewing Booth of the title refers to an apparatus invented by Alexandrowicz that operates like an updated version of Errol Morris’s interrotron, specifically oriented towards the film’s self-reflexive ends. In short, it positions a camera opposite a viewer, who watches videos that are both emotionally and politically charged, in this case footage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as presented both by the activist group B’Tselem as well as by various nationalistic and right wing organs. While the film emerged out of a series of experiments with a variety of viewers, it ultimately hones in on the viewing experience of a single participant: a young woman named Maia, who views them from an unambiguously Zionist perspective, but who nonetheless is willing to engage with the videos at length in essentially good faith. As Maia’s commentary becomes more complex, the film becomes a document of what Alexandrowicz calls, “a breakdown of communication that becomes a dialogue in its own right.” Revealing and instructive to anyone with an interest in how images interact with their world, the film provides cause for both optimism and pessimism, but ultimately leaves space for viewers to come to their own conclusions.
DW: I’d like to start more or less where we left off in Queens, which is how The Viewing Booth came out of a period of uncertainty for you.
RA: My experiences with other projects, mainly the films The Inner Tour and The Law in These Parts, brought me to The Viewing Booth. It was the dichotomy between making films that, on one hand, are meant to have some kind of influence on how people think about certain issues and, on the other, the reality that’s outside the film. Popping out of my little bubble, I have to admit that things seem to be not very influenced by the work that I do, as well as that of other, better filmmakers than myself. This dichotomy brought me to ask myself: What is the role of the work that I’m doing, and what is the role of the nonfiction image?
My first approach was to try to look at this by way of research: I took a certain subject that I am very invested in, which is Palestine, and I looked at the way it was documented over time. I wanted to look at it not by going through it media object by media object, but rather to try to assess the big picture—to ask myself, what is the relationship between the ongoing occupation, and the ongoing documentation of it? Some of these thoughts are written in my essay “50 Years of Documentation.” Discovering how much critical documentation of the occupation existed from very early on led me to the understanding that to try to approach this question I shouldn’t necessarily be looking only at the media or the makers of it, but rather at the eyes that see that media.
DW: You’ve said that you saw Maia as kind of an ideal viewer? Obviously, she wasn’t going to constitute “preaching to the choir.” But were there other characteristics that made her particularly well suited to the role?
RA: I should say that I don’t think that changing people’s minds is the sole purpose of documentary cinema. It is something that many of us are trying to achieve, but other people have very different goals, which are valid. And yes, Maia is definitely not in the choir. She thinks very differently from me with regards to the political situation in Israel, and the meaning of these images. But it was more than that. I found her to be a very curious and open-eyed viewer. She is not turning away from things that are difficult for her to watch. She may be somehow transforming them, which I try to document in the film, but she is actually looking, and she’s willing to be self-reflective about how she’s looking. So in a way Maia is my “ideal” or “preferred” viewer not only because she sees things differently from me, but also because she’s very good about seeing. So if I, as a maker of images, can’t reach her, whom can I reach?
DW: I’m interested in exploring this idea of being “good at seeing.” When we were talking back at the festival, you were clear that this is not a film about the occupation. So one thing that it does end up being about is this idea of seeing, and the possibility that one can be too sophisticated as a viewer. That if you bring so much extra-textual awareness, you can miss the thing that you think you’re seeing. Or perhaps you end up analyzing or editorializing about something instead of simply seeing it.
RA: I agree with that. Though one of the things that’s special about Maia is that because of her authenticity, I—and other people who watch the film—can see ourselves in her. Through experiencing her seeing the images in a way we do not agree with, we are able to imagine how we view images that maybe don’t accord with the way we see the world.
Going back to being “too sophisticated as a viewer” as you put it, I do think that critical viewing, which is something that I strongly support, can also kill something in the basic disposition of seeing, and I don’t think it only happens on one side of the political divide. One of the things I learned through making the film is that viewing is behavior. It’s internal, but we are behaving towards images in the same way that we can behave towards a person. Some viewers of The Viewing Booth are behaving towards Maia the same way that Maia behaved towards the images in the film. They dismiss her as a point of reference for them, because she “doesn’t know enough about this” or that she is “a lost cause.” I can’t help asking if what is going on is that these people are dismissive of Maia herself as a way of coming to terms with what’s reflected through her.
DW: One thing that we’ve been implicitly discussing without mentioning outright is what you might call partisanship, which can have a specific meaning in the U.S. context, but which we might think of as a basic conflation of one’s political beliefs and one’s identity. I don’t think that it’s inherently a disqualifying vice or limited to one side of political spectrum. You and I probably have a sort of partisanship of our own—we’re both on the left and against the occupation, broadly speaking. But I’d like to ask if you see The Viewing Booth as a partisan film.
RA: That’s a question that speaks to some of my basic dilemmas in making the film. This is actually the first film that I’m not addressing at the people “beyond the choir” in order to contribute to an effort to change their minds. I actually don’t know what to expect from people from the “other side” of the political divide with this film and how they would see it. For instance, I’m not sure what people who are pro-occupation will do with this film, if they even watch it. I am very much looking forward to the engagement of people who are like-minded politically as well as people who believe, like I do, that by showing things about the world, we can make it a better place; in other words, the nonfiction community in the broadest possible definition.
As I mentioned before, these images are very important to me, and not only to me. They document a reality that is ongoing and unacceptable. But here is the dilemma: I actually made a film about these images without providing my way of reading them, which I really think is the right way. This was very unsettling for me throughout the process. I asked myself whether I was betraying the images—and betraying the people who made them—by making a film where the main participant gets a platform to discredit the images. Moreover, I mostly don’t push back against this discrediting. But for ethical and political reasons, I understood that if I wanted to portray Maia’s viewing, my job was to be pretty silent and to facilitate the understanding of that point of view.
In later stages of post-production, I showed the film to the Palestinians who had actually filmed the videos. I admit that I was very worried about this meeting, for the reasons I mentioned. The outcome surprised me. All of Maia’s arguments against the images they already know. They’re being asked every day: Why are you here with a camera? Did you fake this video? This wasn’t new to them. What was new was seeing the eyes looking at it, and to perceive that she’s in a kind of turmoil because of the images that they created. So, funnily enough, they said that they feel very optimistic about her. They felt that the images would still change her.
DW: In a way very much unlike Maia’s, I can also feel a sort of resistance to this kind of video. In general, I don’t like to watch videos that show somebody being killed. When I think about why that is, I don’t think that I have a particularly good or articulate answer beyond the sort of psychological self-preservation you describe as well as a sort of more philosophic discomfort. I think that a lot of the social value of these videos has to do with providing empirical evidence of oppression. There are enough people in the world who believe that the Israeli army or American police force would never do the things they’re accused of, that we need the videos to show a critical mass of people that, yes, these things really do happen. The issue is that I already am convinced, and I’m less sure of the effect these videos have on you when you already believe these things.
RA: All of that is true, but I would say that you’re leaving out one important thing, which is the act of witnessing. The choice to watch is the choice to bear witness. The main excuse that I—and many people, I think—use for not watching is to say to myself: “I know that this stuff happens, and I acknowledge that it is wrong, so I don’t need to see it.” The answer would be that to see something you don’t want to see would probably give you a little more understanding of just how terrible these things are—these things that you don’t even want to look at from a distance. If the person filming it is enduring it, then the least we can do is to hold our eyes against it and suffer with it.
But there’s always a counterargument, because what is witnessing? What does it mean to witness hunger in our living room? To paraphrase Sontag, the “pain of others” has never been as visible to so many as it is now; and at the same time, some ideas of human equality and solidarity are being rolled back. Even if you come to these images with the best of intentions, there might be an effect of desensitization; you might find yourself being voyeuristic. One reason that people avoid videos of death is the same reason that other people choose to watch them: because it’s a chance to witness death from a safe space. So the contradictions are very interwoven with one another. So I’m like you: I didn’t really want to be a part of this by seeing it. But at the same time I never thought it was a moral position; it was a selfish position.
I recently encountered an excerpt from an interview with an Israeli bulldozer driver that I had read in 2002. The guy had given a candid, horrifying interview in which he bragged about his part in destroying the Jenin refugee camp. Reading this short excerpt I remembered the visceral effect that the full interview had had on me 18 years ago. That text had shocked me in the deepest way. The memory of that sensation, which was provoked by reading the short excerpt was a reminder that I’m not as affected even by graphic depictions of these things today as I was reading about them a couple of decades ago. Every day one is less sensitive than one was yesterday, and you can’t track it until you have a memory of how you used to respond.
DW: I think that in a lot of ways, we’ve been creeping back towards what you might call barbarism. There’s a rising level of acceptance of things that ought to be unacceptable. For instance, in the 19th century, you’d have a pogrom in Kishinev, and the deaths of 50 people would be a global scandal. Or you’d have the Dreyfus affair, where just one man is wrongfully accused, and it becomes a matter for the entire world. And steadily, I think in large part because of the world wars and other political changes, the basic idea of what is tolerable has quietly degenerated. I don’t think that you can blame the images; although I do wonder what role some kind of mass desensitization may have played. As we enter the new Coronavirus reality, you begin to wonder what we are willing to consider “normal.” If 100,000 people die, is that normal? If a million die, can we consider our lives normal then?
RA: And of course that depends on which 100,000 people we are talking about, are they in Yemen or in New York?
DW: Exactly. And then the question is, does this reservoir of information and media play a role in reinforcing that reality?
RA: For that I’d like to go back to my experience with these videos. Because I’ve been witness to the moment when the people who used to be the subject of documentary films became the people doing the documenting. I write about this moment in the context of the Israeli Occupation in “50 Years of Documentation.” I am talking about the 2000s, when small cameras became widespread amongst the Palestinians living under occupation and videos like the “Sharmuta” video that appears in The Viewing Booth started appearing online. When I saw these images, and the reach that they had, I thought, there’s suddenly going to be access to so much raw truth about what is going on, and how can the other side defeat that? I remember another reflection on this question, about a decade later. In 2015 there was another Palestinian wave of uprising, which entailed attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians by use of vehicles and by use of knives. By that time there is always a phone or a camera turned on, so there were all these images of these attacks, and the subsequent killing of the perpetrator. And watching this wave of videos, I felt that I was getting the answer to that earlier question, and it was a heavy one. What was going to defeat these images of truth, I realized, was only more and more images. This is not a new idea of course, but this is the way I experienced this understanding. One hundred and fifty years ago, one image of suffering could fill the consciousness of humanity for a moment, and now we are in a fragmented world, where everyone is watching different images, and everything is relativized in a way that makes it smaller.
DW: Your saying that makes me realize what I think is behind a lot of my skepticism here. The most influential videos in my country in my lifetime would probably be the footage of the 9/11 attacks. I remember that my parents didn’t want me to see the videos, but they couldn’t prevent this because the images were everywhere—it was the ultimate spectacle for fin-de-siècle America. And you couldn’t see the effect that all this was having at first, but as we got further into the decade you saw that these images created a sort of invisible trauma, which I don’t think that people really understood was there. But you would see it in the way that Americans would talk about Muslims, and in the way that many people allowed themselves to be duped into this war that everyone knew was at least somewhat based on a lie, perhaps because they wanted to achieve a certain affective payoff. I think that, even if you’re not aware of it, this critical mass of violent images can still affect you in ways that make you less humane or less reasonable. Now, I don’t think that’s the case with the B’Tselem videos in your film. But one of the things that does make me pessimistic is that while images can genuinely challenge partisanship—which you do show in the film—I wonder if having so much of that kind of imagery as a part of the ambient environment will always ultimately redoubt to the benefit of that innate partisanship and to the people who are best positioned and most willing to exploit it.
RA: I really agree with that. And I think that in a way it’s a more articulate way to put that experiential thing that I was saying before. The question is to what extent that environment of media that we live in ends up destroying its own significance. From a place of self-preservation I totally agree with you. There is an effect that’s hard to put one’s finger on. Images are changing mankind, and the extreme visual exposure to images that allow us to witness “the pain of others” is changing what humanism is.