Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: The Viewing Booth, Maia’s Skepticism

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Chris Boeckmann writes about The Viewing Booth, analysing the filmmaker’s relationship to his principle subject. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth is available in Bock 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

At the start of The Viewing Booth, director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz steers his subject Maia into a small, dark laboratory. In front of her sits a computer preloaded with 40 videos, each documenting moments from Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine. Half come from Palestinian activists, the others from Israeli Defense Forces sympathisers. After informing Maia of the footage’s partisan provenance, Alexandrowicz requests she verbalise what transpires in her head as she watches. He does not reveal his own resistance to the occupation.

During this session, Maia gradually reveals she is a Jewish American of Israeli parentage whose politics align with the government of Israel. While Alexandrowicz is drawn to Maia because she represents a conflicting point of view, he fixates on her because she gamely rises to his prompts and startles him. Across all eleven videos she encounters, Maia seems to resent the person filming. She suggests no video can be used as evidence of reality because all camera operators position their subjects as either villains or victims; authorship renders the material insufficient. Would Maia suggest courtrooms discount all victim testimonies, given that they are also subjective and workshopped? This is a dangerous, cowardly way to approach reality. 

Alexandrowicz effectively puts Maia on trial in a second session by playing back her comments from this first meeting. Her discomfort is visible. “It’s interesting; if I can comment on your film style,” she says before denigrating his profession, confidently asserting all audiovisual depictions of reality — nonfiction (the human rights abuse she is watching) and fiction (Netflix’s Fauda) — are destined to commingle in her head. Alexandrowicz lands on his film’s most striking image: two computer monitors side-by-side, one with old Maia smugly chastising a Palestinian father for filming his child’s trauma, the other with new Maia cracking up at these blithe remarks. You can find humor and humanity or cruelty in this moment. Alexandrowicz seems aghast as he confesses his desire to change her belief system through images. Maia responds by noting the reason she watches Palestinian trauma is not to challenge her understanding of reality but to sharpen the rhetoric she uses to defend Israel’s actions. Maia’s final revelations might reflect what she believes (who actually watches documentaries to challenge their values?), but she could just be antagonising a director who has been guarded, arguably to a duplicitous degree, while receiving her vulnerability. The film ends here, uneasy and unresolved. 

Like Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, The Viewing Booth opens with a 1936 Virginia Woolf passage, in which she responds to a lawyer wondering how “we” can prevent the Spanish Civil War. Woolf suggests they each look at wartime images to “see whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.” Although Alexandrowicz acknowledges that Woolf challenges the lawyer’s use of “we,” he neglects to mention that for Woolf, “we” was an inadequate pronoun because of gender: who is a man to ask a woman how to prevent war? Sontag validates Woolf’s pushback and takes it a step further: “No ‘we,’” she writes, “should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”

As Sontag’s text makes clear, Maia’s skepticism is nothing new: oppressors and sympathisers have a long history of looking at images of the oppressed’s pain and calling them “staged.” “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric,” Sontag writes. “They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” Nonfiction images are weapons, more effective at galvanising than converting. The Viewing Booth confirms documentary filmmakers are still losing a war over the nonfiction image, but who is a filmmaker to ask a viewer how to win it?

Chris Boeckmann is a freelance writer-programmer based in Columbia, Missouri. He programmed at the True/False Film Fest from 2009-2020 and has written for Film Comment and Filmmaker Magazine.

Book tickets for The Viewing Booth here.