Interview: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz
The Viewing Booth (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)
“Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth is explicitly about watching, pursuing a conceit in which we viewers view someone viewing footage,” Eric Hynes writes in his Make It Real column for Film Comment (May-June 2020). “Adjacent to his editing suite, Alexandrowicz set up a viewing booth—ostensibly a voiceover chamber—that’s simultaneously isolated from and connected to the director, who’s stationed on the other side of the glass. The director remotely shares a desktop screen with the participant, while a camera looks out from that screen to observe the viewer’s responses. At the beginning of the film, a young woman, Maia Levy, enters the space and receives instructions about how things will proceed: the console plays selections of YouTube videos about the Israeli occupation . . . And as she tries to situate the footage, determining who made it and what they’re trying to achieve, we’re doing the same.”
Shot at Temple University, Alexandrowicz’s ingenious film shows us Maia’s sensitive, thoughtful reactions in close-up as well as glimpses of what she is watching. In a fascinating second half recorded later on, Maia returns to view her own previous responses and comments upon them, adding another layer of reflection, with Alexandrowicz a gently questioning presence throughout without having false optimism about the process. It’s a riveting film for anyone who has feared for the possibility for understanding in a heavily mediated world where common ground seems increasingly unattainable, aggravated by apathy and bad actors alike. Alexandrowicz’s 2011 documentary The Law in These Parts, about Israeli military courts in the occupied territories, won the Grand Jury Award at Sundance, and his The Inner Tour (2001) followed the perspective of Palestinians traveling in Israel. The Viewing Booth had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and in March I caught up with Alexandrowicz at the True/False Film Fest when his film screened there.
I was really struck by the film’s ending, because it’s humble and it knocks the wind out of a viewer. You basically conclude that, as a filmmaker, you’ve been training people to come up with arguments against what you’re trying to argue for.
It’s not that I think cinema’s role is to change people’s minds. In some way, because of my position in the society I came from—the society of Israel and Palestine—the political awakening that came with the beginning of my filmmaking two decades ago put me on that track. And yes, I made this film because I began to have these serious doubts. The film is the process of addressing the doubts. But I don’t have any answers. It’s also a film that unexpectedly became many things, because it was really not a planned process. It’s a film about a breakdown of communication, but that also becomes dialogue, although it’s a problematic dialogue. It’s a more open-ended film, throughout its whole structure, than anything I’ve made, and it really aspires to put the person looking at it in a position where he finds himself camped in that booth with the images and with her and with me.
It is a 70-minute film, cut out of around four hours of material with Maia Levy. Except for these four segments where I have my voice coming in and clarifying something, it’s also chronological. So, in a way, it’s a film that really represents something that happened there. I think the reason why the second shoot was longer [was] because I was maybe hoping that we would find a more optimistic ending but, finally, it is what it is.
In the second half, when Maia comes back for reflexive viewing, it seems as if she digs in a little.
Yeah. I think what differentiates the first part of the film and the second is that in the first part, it’s really more or less following the way she watches those images. And in truth, when we did that, I was not really pushing back in any way. It was just moving forward and interpreting and thinking. When I shot the first part, I never thought there would be a second part. But in the second part, when she looks at herself, it’s true that she does dig in. Another aspect of it is that she’s very self-reflective. She’s actually feeling how she’s seeing, and I think that, in seeing how she’s seeing and letting us see that, we begin to see how we see. The Hebrew title of the film is “Mirror.”
I really feel there is room for all of us, as audiences of images, to be more aware of our parts in media. This is the thing that I’m trying to shed light on. The media is not only the media—it would not be anything without us taking part in it. I feel with some audiences in Berlin and also here that this is happening—that people say, “Okay, now as I move forward watching other things, I’m a little bit changed because I started to listen to my internal dialogue or behavior with images.”
Being more of an active viewer.
Yes. Active and reflective. And I think that’s the experience that this film wants to offer its viewers. An entrance into that.
How did you choose the look of the film, the booth? Was that so participants would respond in a more scientific or empirical way?
I started messing with this thing around five years ago. I felt that I needed to turn the camera from trying to film “reality,” to try to explore the eyes and the minds that experience it and try to understand what happens there. The project was very abstract from the beginning. Then I started searching for both the form and the right material. Creating this machine, which is a kind of a spinoff of Errol Morris’ Interrotron, but you don’t see the director. You’re in dialogue with images. It’s kind of filmed from the point of view of the media. I tried to film people in more natural surroundings—a café, or a home—and I felt a certain tension, bringing in this apparatus. Finally I said, “No, I should try to go for something that really hooks the artificialness of the situation out there.” There are some advantages with that. For instance, the isolation: going into that booth and being alone with the images. If I film in a living room and the person’s kid comes and sits on his lap, that’s natural and that’s interesting, but I felt, no, the isolation is actually what allows people to dig inside and we get something deeper.
When you were trying to figure out the right model for doing this work, did you consult with psychologists?
I always talk to developmental and now also neuropsychologists, because my wife is a developmental psychologist. She works in neuro labs, and I have friends, so I have these conversations. But no, I was actually very much pushing away from a quantitative kind of research. I tried to approach the feelings and some very subjective things. So, for instance, what does Maia represent? She doesn’t represent any group. She doesn’t represent young people. She doesn’t represent young Jewish people. She doesn’t represent young Jewish-American people. She represents a viewer. That’s what I’m really interested in, because she thinks very differently from me but she is very open and critical. So, if I can’t succeed with her, who can I succeed with? Obviously I’d read a lot of thought about viewership because I never had that theoretical background.
How did you find Maia? Who were the other people involved?
I put out an open call at Temple University, also to some of the more Jewish organizations, and people responded. More or less whoever responded, we invited, and Maia did not respond. Then on the day of the filming, we got a text from her saying that she heard about it from someone and it’s interesting and she’d like to join. Someone else called in and said that she wouldn’t be coming, so there was a slot. So that’s how Maia came in, and then she became the film or the film became her. The other people were all people that had interest in Israel. Most of them were Jewish. Some of them were maybe half-Jewish or didn’t consider themselves Jewish but were studying in Jewish studies or some studies that had some sort of connection. Some of the things that she said, other people said as well. There were other readings also based on different identities, of course. If someone had the experience of living in America with the identity of a brown person, obviously their way of reading these videos is different than someone who doesn’t have that experience.
It’s also complex because there’s also this connection to Israel that makes people want to find some explanation for the images. So in that main video, which the film focuses on, there’s a moment where the soldiers are interrogating one of the kids and they say, “Well, how did you get that cut on your face?” And he says it’s barbed wire. He was playing up on the roof where the pigeons are. But the viewer hears barbed wire, so he said, “Oh, he was playing on the separation wall.” Just the very invoking of the word “barbed wire” creates an image, which connects to an image. Many times you could follow how these meanings are made, and actually the working title that I gave that exercise was “The Meaning.”
So there weren’t any Palestinian students?
No. And there was also some bias created by the way that I put out the call, I did not go to Middle Eastern studies. That’s actually a good point to bring up because that sheds light on the fact that I was interested in this kind of point of view. I never defined it to myself, as my preferred viewer. But Maia had a certain motivation. I think that that’s something we might not realize—that we have motivations for looking at things sometimes. And those motivations inform the way we look at them. So, she was the most motivated I’d say.
What’s your reading of the video with the nighttime visit by Israeli soldiers to a home where they say they’re looking for a bomb?
I had spent years in Israel being involved in the activism against the occupation, I read the testimonies, so I know it’s not even a question. I know the meaning of this event is not looking for any kind of bomb, because they would have been behaving very differently if they were afraid.
Yes, that’s what Maia says.
Yes. My context for [the videos] is actually 50 years of total control. And that’s how you achieve control in a military occupation: you make sure the people know that you can be in their house at every night, at any time. So my reading of it is informed by that and informed by testimonies and it’s informed by knowing Palestinians and having been in that city, in these places.
But still, my position in the film was not to say to Maia, “Oh, this is what I know.” My job there was to understand how she sees it, which is not easy and it was also something that I was worried about in releasing the film. I asked myself, “Am I betraying these images? Am I betraying the people that filmed them? Am I betraying myself in some way?” Because there was no other way to make the film. Otherwise, I would have betrayed her. In editing, it’s very easy to insert what I know to be the meaning of the video, but that would have been unfair to her.
She has a very expressive face, too, so you can read her reactions well.
Yes, Maia definitely has a very strong presence, and I guess it’s part of what is a documentary protagonist. I mean, I’m not interesting on camera. I’m speaking to you now, the words can maybe work. But she has this very strong presence, and another thing that I found very unique about her is that I didn’t feel for one moment that she was acting. And we are in a world now where everyone identifies cameras and does their best sometimes to act. Definitely for me, when someone’s pointing a camera at me, I don’t remain the same. Maybe it was the situation of the booth and being able to forget and just be in the moment. She’s there, she’s in a certain situation and we are with her through that.
In retrospect, I see this trajectory [in my work]. There’s this trajectory of efforts to capture and mediate, capture and mediate, which somehow reaches a point with this project where, okay, let’s see what people are seeing. The videos [of the sort shown in the booth] are not my kind of work, but I do believe that these kinds of videos are at the forefront of documentary media today. I think the people who really show the world to other people now, to the masses, are the people with phones and cameras.
Cinematically, with The Inner Tour I thought that as an Israeli, my role was to film Palestinians and mediate what they feel and, really, their experience. I still love that film, but after that, I said, “This is not my role.” And I moved my camera onto Israelis, people in power. The continuation of that metaphorical pan is to the eyes of the people who are looking, because maybe that’s where the change should be happening. But it’s also a pan from filming landscape, toward the studio and then finally the booth of darkness. An almost non-cinema. In terms of the transparency of storytelling, I also realized that I really regressed somehow. In The Inner Tour, I was working with those techniques of cinema verité and really wanted to be on the same plane as fiction films. Here I feel I’d rather have a place where everything is out [in the open]. You have the toolbox in the frame, almost.
The Law in These Parts
It’s almost as if you’re escaping debates about realism, because this is such a controlled environment. It hardly feels like a dramatic depiction of someone in a booth. It’s just someone in a booth.
Exactly. Right. I saw the booth and I asked someone to sit in it, I saw the reflection. My reflection is there in the shot from the side—you’ll always see me when the lens opens up. So, I said, “Okay, that’s the setup.”
You’re often adjusting something with a dial, what is that?
I’m pulling focus. The film was made with very scarce means, so I don’t want to say that these things are artistic decisions. In that situation, the only person of the two that could pull focus was me. But then, sometimes, these things give meaning. Of course, I want to kill myself every time she goes out of focus, but I had a friend in Berlin, a German [director of photography], who said, “Every time it goes out of focus, it was an extra moment for me to think of what’s going on here.”
What does Maia do?
She is teaching art in north Philadelphia.
Did you not want to do this project in Israel?
I started this project in Israel and the earlier exercises, or efforts, were in Israel. Some of them were with videos that go around, the kind of videos that go on WhatsApp, on Facebook. They were more horrible videos, like car rammings or knife stabbings, and then, usually, the person is immediately gunned down. There are videos of that and people watch them. In one of the earlier exercises, there were parents from my kid’s school, and many people don’t watch these videos. So, I did these things in Israel and they were going towards a significant place, but not yet what I was looking for. Then I just moved to the U.S., so I continued here and, I have to say, the American-Jewish audience was always important for me and for the film. It felt natural to do it here and also, this was what I had, I was here. The dream would be that this idea would just become something that other people would find a way of doing.
Part of what I like about this film is that you go beyond the initial reaction of the participants, of Maia. You ask the follow-up.
That’s true, and I don’t know if you’ll find this relevant to what you say now but I sometimes ask, “Did you change?” And exploring Maia watching these images, it’s not that I’m changing my general reading of the image or, in any way, what I think is the political importance or stance of that image. But that video [of the nighttime house raid] was a very central video to me as I was doing the research. There was no open violence in it. The violence of the situation is actually everything that enables it. To be so almost normal. And being a parent and having my own memories, it was a very difficult video for me to watch, very immediate and visceral.
I also realized that the person who was making the video is an excellent documentary filmmaker. I imagine I’m on the camera, police comes into my house, I am allowed to film. I’m trying to see what are they breaking, what are they taking. But this man understands that the power of the situation is in his kids waking up. That’s actually what a good documentarian does. He lets go of some things, which might even be evidence. Now, he never went to film school, he never read about documentary practice or history. But life is putting a camera in his hands as a weapon of self-defense in this era where you can also sometimes see the results of what him or other people like him are filming. He’s also the viewer of these images. This loop of many people now of being both producers and viewers, creates a new kind of literacy. Seeing him as a filmmaker was something I didn’t see in my first viewing of the video. In my first viewing, all I saw was violation of the basic right of this family to sleep and these kids. But it was Maia’s gaze that helped me see that.
That literacy becomes a survival skill as well. I immediately also think of police and African American citizens here. You have to start recording because of the past.
And this is the frightening thing. In order for that to continue to be an effective weapon of self-defense, these images have to retain their status of depicting truths. So, actually, in The Viewing Booth, there’s the worrying possibility that the non-fiction images are losing some of their status, of being representative of something that’s really happening. Fifty years ago, if images are manipulated, who manipulates images? Nazis. Stalin. There was still a big belief that mostly what you are seeing in front of the lens is a picture of truth, and that’s how nonfiction images are perceived. Fifty years later, it’s almost that we can speak about an almost inherent disbelief towards nonfiction. It’s a nonfiction image? Let’s see if someone’s trying to manipulate me. Now that is partially the result of what we now call “fake news,” but [it] has been going on for a while. What it made me think is that you should now think about this term in two ways. It is fake media, but it’s also this state of mind that we are in now. That a lot of fake news is partially in us. It’s a disposition.
Maybe there’s also an American disposition to question authority. So if you identify media as one of those authorities—and the video itself—it’s just part of the culture to question it.
Yeah, but with Chomsky, that doubt was very healthy. Manufacturing Consent was revelatory. I remember, I saw it when I was maybe 25. Obviously, it’s on steroids now. But there was an interesting sentence in a film that I just saw [at True/False], The Faculty. It was almost really the ending sentence of the film, in an economics class, and the professor says to his students: “The 2001 economic crash here in Argentina didn’t change one letter in the way economics is taught in this university. And that’s a problem.” We have to somehow confront ourselves with these difficult questions.
Was there a particular screening or something where you thought, “Oh, is this really working?” I’m sure it happens in different ways and in different phases.
Yeah, well, the doubts were around the doubts after my life with The Law in These Parts. The film was doing really well, in terms of festivals and prizes and acknowledgement and press, and then doing an engagement campaign in Israel with legal professionals and with educators. At the same time, experiencing how there’s less and less reason to hope for change in that system I depicted in that film, the “legal injustice system” about the occupation. But I could see, in those years, that it was actually also moving into a state of permanence. I, myself, saw that this was not going to go away.
That doubt connected to some earlier experience during the making of that film, doing the archive research. I looked at hundreds and hundreds of media pieces from 1967 till when I was making the film and I watched this whole painful history documented. That was a tragic, condensed viewing of it but it was also especially disturbing because I did have to admit to myself, “Okay, questions that you are asking now have been asked 20 or 30 years ago, even as Israel was a single-television channel state,” which means if this was on television, everyone was seeing it. They didn’t have anywhere else to zap. So, those two things ignited this very critical, doubtful period, so I wrote about it and thought about it. Finally, I felt that the one thing I don’t know anything about is how people are actually seeing this. That doubt led to The Viewing Booth.
It’s a provocative film to watch, given the tone of certain documentaries about important issues. Everyone’s very happy they’re coming out and supporting some cause, and then the things they’re making movies about keep happening.
I know, this is exactly the feeling. Also, in The Law in These Parts, I suddenly felt the dichotomy that you’re talking about. And the thing is that [with] fellow filmmakers, usually you don’t have to say more than two words and they get it. Everyone’s in that dichotomy.
Nicolas Rapold is the editor-in-chief of Film Comment and hosts The Film Comment Podcast.