“To suffer is one thing; another thing is to live with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate… Images transfix. Images anesthetize… But after repeated exposure to images, [an event] also becomes less real.”—Susan Sontag, On Photography
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz had an idea. The Israeli filmmaker sent out a notice at an American university about an experiment. He was looking for students who had in interest in his home country. Alexandrowicz compiled 40 short videos, half of which were from human-rights organizations like B’Tzelem, and the other half from far-right pundits and groups. Most of them were only a few minutes in length. Many of them had gone viral. All of them detailed scenes of the occupation and interactions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The gist of the experiment was that these volunteers would watch the curated clips in a “viewing booth” that Alexandrowicz had set up, and, sitting in an adjacent room, he would observe and film their reactions. They could pause or rewind, focus on details and ask questions. He just wanted them talk about their reactions. Seven students sign up. One in particular fascinates him: Maia Levy, a Jewish-American student who identifies as being “pro-Israel.” When she enters the booth, we’re treated to a tight close-up of her face — basically, the P.O.V. of the computer monitor itself. As soon as he starts the first clip, which she identifies as being an encounter between soldiers, “religious settlers” and “Arab citizens,” you can detect a strain of skepticism in her voice. (And see a roll of her eyes.) “It’s about freedom of speech, kind of?” Levy posits, though the slight tilt of her head — a gesture pitched somewhere between genuine wonder and ok-whatever dismissiveness — leaves you unsure as to how much she really believes that.
And it’s the concept of belief, as well as the ability to have your ideologies questioned and possibly altered, that’s at the very center of The Viewing Booth, Alexandrowicz’s new documentary. (You can check out his past work and his latest at the Museum of the Moving Image’s virtual cinema; it’s also getting a theatrical run at the MoMI before it begins streaming on BBC Reel beginning August 18th.) We get blink-and-you-miss-’em shots of the other students who take the hot seat, but it’s merely a courtesy: This is Maia’s movie, and she’s the test subject that will force Alexandrowicz to reckon with his own previously established value systems. A former soldier, the filmmaker has dealt with the occupation in his other docs, and has clung to the notion that, by exposing viewers to what’s going on, he can win hearts and minds. Levy has her own opinions about what’s happening in the settlements. She is, in Alexandrowicz’s own words, the exact person he’s trying to communicate with. Except everywhere she looks, she sees nothing but partisanship and propaganda.
That’s not entirely true: Levy is definitely sympathetic to the children she sees being rousted in the middle of the night in Hebron by Israeli soldiers. She can recognize when lines are being crossed. But there are enough tells in her reactions, enough cynicism — possibly earned, probably inherited — in her responses to see which side of the argument she falls on. “I feel like she’s lying…I don’t trust her,” Levy says in regards to a wailing Palestinian mother pleading with troops, followed by the extremely telling comment, “They lie a lot.” Everything feels so overly dramatic and staged, she says. They put crying kids in the background for effect. Wasn’t this a plotline from Fauda? “It’s hard to remember what’s real and what isn’t.” There’s no context — maybe that soldier kicked a kid in the street for good reason? Maybe that family had a bomb hidden in the house? We don’t know all the facts, and anyway, these videos always have biases. There’s a justification for everything, although Levy also offers a constant refrain the more she watches these scenes of life during wartime: “This doesn’t look good for Israel.”
Yet Levy never comes off as a caricature, and is never set up to be a straw man for the filmmaker’s arguments. She is never portrayed as a monster, just a human being. She’s your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner and the kid getting righteous during a late-night dorm room hang. She is anyone who’s grown up on a diet of 21st century media, and sees someone behind every curtain, pulling levers and pushing agendas. As for Alexandrowicz, he mostly observes her observing, occasionally chiming in with a fact or two but mostly letting Levy’s commentary dictate where the conversation goes. When she questions how convenient it is for B’Tzelem’s cameras to always be where the action is — are they getting tipped off? do they just hang around, waiting for shit to go down? — the filmmaker says nothing. Five minutes later, Levy realizes that the footage is usually crowd-sourced. That she’s allowed comes to her own conclusion says volumes. Occasionally, we get to see what’s she’s watching, at which point we are called on to form an opinion, and be tempted to pass judgement ourselves on both the footage and the young woman speaking her mind.
Eventually, Alexandrowicz calls her back for a second session some six months later, and asks Levy to re-view the original footage of her talking about the clips. He then frames a monitor of Maia watching herself with the old scenes running in a parallel monitor, as he himself watches in the background. The descent down the meta rabbit hole gets dizzying.
It ends with another conversation between the two of them, and something like a stalemate — yet you can see how far each has gone in fostering some sort of understanding of each other. You also understand that The Viewing Booth is ultimately not really about Israel at all, or at least, not solely about the situation in the Middle East. It’s about seeing freedom fighters vs. insurrectionists, a leader vs. a con man, a plague vs. a hoax. It’s about arguing over whose lives matter. It’s about the culture divide and the reality gap that’s quickly turning into a collective abyss that we’re all staring down into. Even with its simple set-up and at a scant 71 minutes, there’s an entire buffet for thought laid out here. Alexandrowicz may have given us the single best documentary of the year; he has undoubtedly given us one of the most vital. Maia Levy, c’est moi.