Israeli artist spawns Facebook-'Big Brother' love child
Israeli-born multimedia artist Ann Oren's first feature-length film, 'In Contact,' tackles the role of social media in our lives.
The brown eye of a woman, with a reddish eyebrow above it, stares at the camera. It closes and opens, moves restlessly from side to side, tries to peek at something or someone in another place. This disturbing image, which is screened in an endless loop on a small monitor, belongs to "An Eye for an Eye," a work by the Israeli artist Ann Oren.
“I always try to use materials that were photographed and drawn by others and put them in a new context,” said Oren, 32, in an interview at her apartment, a lovely loft that was once a shoe-polish factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Oren lives there with her husband, an American musician and artist.
“Michael Haneke is one of the major influences on my work, and in 'An Eye for an Eye,' I used close-ups of the eyes of the actress Isabelle Huppert from his film "La Pianiste," in which she plays an obsessive, voyeuristic woman. The moment I separated her eye from the plot, it became a graphic image that causes a feeling of discomfort. There is a reversal of roles here: From a voyeur, she becomes an object to be looked at, and the viewer is the one who stares at her.”
Oren, who grew up in Tel Aviv and Kfar Shmaryahu, moved to New York 12 years ago. A multimedia artist and video-art director, she wants to map the history of film viewers. Her works, which have been shown at the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, in galleries in New York and Madrid and at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, blur the boundary between actors and audience and offer refreshing interpretations of concepts such as viewing and performance.
In "Role Reversal" (2007), Oren asked people who were not professional actors to imitate famous scenes from films such as Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" or Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds." At the same time, she edited scenes from those films in such a way that the main characters sat and watched the amateur performances while smoking, laughing or simply watching.
For example, Oren arranged two screens to create a space in which Uma Thurman sat and appeared to look at a young woman imitating her famous dance in Pulp Fiction. The delightful result turned the actors into the audience and vice versa, in such a way that it was hard to decide whether the work was taking place on the first screen, the second screen or in the minds of the visitors to the gallery, who can see both screens simultaneously.
Now, Oren has completed her first full-length film, "In Contact."
“We all grew up with an intensive, over-the-top television culture that made us internalize concepts of acting and public persona deeply,” she says. “Today, in a world of social networking, we can all be performers and not function only as passive viewers.”
Haaretz: Is this necessarily a new phenomenon, or is it human tendencies that have always existed taken to an extreme?
“It’s both," Oren said. "Before the digital age, we had ‘stages' that allowed us to act temporarily, such as, for example, traveling on public transportation, a job interview or dates. But today, there are many more options to act various parts. You don’t necessarily have to be an extrovert because we live in a society that is constantly stimulating our extrovert gland. I’m not a person who usually likes to photograph stills, but lately I discovered Instagram and got pretty addicted. I enjoy the theatrical aspect of it, and mostly the immediacy, which is maybe the most significant innovation of our time.”
Do you agree that this kind of behavior creates narcissism and egoism?
“I don’t think it creates negative characteristics," said Oren. "Rather, it sets a new standard for social behavior. Today, daily exposure is a norm. As an artist, I find it interesting to try to evaluate this change. I don’t dismiss the unique talents and skills of professional actors, but I am interested in asking what their place is in the current culture, in which every one of us has his or her own audience.”
Even if we say we can all direct ourselves, do you believe we all want to be performers?
“Not necessarily, but society certainly pushes us in that direction," said Oren. "Twitter, Facebook and Instagram make day-to-day experiences that much more powerful. There are also people who are more like the protagonist in "La Pianiste" and simply enjoy watching others without being seen. Voyeurism is the flip side of endless extroversion.”
A film in nine days
Oren, who left Israel immediately upon completing her compulsory army service, was accepted to the film department of the School of Visual Arts in New York even though she had never used a camera in her life.
“While I was in the army, a friend told me about a woman who had been accepted to study film in New York, and I decided to try too," she said. "I had no knowledge of the field except a love of films, so I wrote a short screenplay about a woman who is desperately in love with Elvis. To my surprise, I was accepted. When I was studying for my bachelor’s degree, I really liked the focus on aesthetics: playing with the camera, with colors, with shading. I tried to move away from the need to tell a story or develop characters, and I chose to focus on atmosphere.
“The first film I made was inspired by silent film and by Maya Deren. At the time, YouTube was starting to become more and more dominant, and I started feeling as though my relationship with the viewer was based on assumptions that had lost their relevance," Oren said. "One example of that is when the director manipulates the viewer, who sits in the darkened theater and swallows the story that is presented to him. I was frustrated with the fact that most of the films I saw at that time paid no attention to the enormous changes in the viewer’s status.”
Oren’s feeling that the medium of film had fallen into a crisis spurred her to pursue a master of fine arts degree after completing her bachelor’s degree in film and television studies.
“I realized that my work was conceptual rather than narrative and that the topic I wanted to concentrate on was the changing status of the viewer of an art work," she said. "Then I started to create short works such as 'An Eye for An Eye' and 'Role Reversal,' which were exhibited at the PS122 Gallery in the East Village.”
Last year, Oren decided to direct a full-length feature film for the first time. The result, "In Contact" (84 minutes), was screened recently in New York and will be screened this coming September at the Social Media Film Festival in Las Vegas. With a tiny budget and in only nine days of filming, Oren succeeded in creating a feature film that was filmed entirely with laptop computers, mobile phones and security cameras. Her choice of equipment was no gimmick. With sophistication, she makes a connection between form and content, in that the film tells the stories of characters who connect with each other and with the outside world primarily via social networks.
To make the interaction between the characters more interesting, Oren invented and constructed a new social network called In Contact for the purpose of filming. In Contact is a cross between Facebook and a reality show. Instead of posting statuses, each user is exposed to never-ending live broadcasts filmed with the webcams of the other users (like a video conversation on Skype). Each user has the option to go offline, but the characters in the film rarely do, allowing a peek into intimate moments of their lives – including a sex scene and even a dramatic death.
After all your criticism of narrative film, your first feature film has a coherent and even clichéd plot – a love triangle between one man and two women. Why did you “give in” and choose to tell a story in the end?
“I really believe that new stories can’t be created anymore. There are only new ways to tell existing stories, so for me dealing with narrative is a lesser thing,” said Oren.
To sketch the image of young urbanites addicted to the Internet in the film, Oren created four characters: Gen (Silya Nymoen), a beautiful, extroverted struggling singer; Christina (Anna Gutto), Gen’s neighbor, who works as a cheese vendor in Brooklyn; George (Noel Joseph Allain), an anti-social scholar who studies Marcel Proust and is torn between Gen and Christina, and Rachel (Birgit Huppuch), Jen’s mother, who is exposed to the wonders of technology through her daughter and represents the generation gap as she witnesses the massive changes in the nature of relationships, friendships and connections. All the characters in the film are unhappy and restless.
One gets the feeling that you are pretty pessimistic about the implications of the digital revolution for human relationships.
“I feel there is a loss of intimacy," Oren said. "We have many friends, but the quality of those relationships is not clear. Because of the overabundance of connections, the lack of human contact is more obvious. Almost everyone I know in New York works alone. There is also much less room for romance. Instead of someone knocking on your door holding a bouquet of flowers, you get an SMS that says, ‘Come down, I’m outside.’”
Still, the influence of social media is not just negative. It can create social change or start political protests.
“Maybe so, but I’m less interested in the political aspect. I think about the changes in interpersonal terms," said Oren. "The festival in Las Vegas, where the film will be screened, will deal with the various ways that social networks can bring about change. There will be films about activism along with films that are more like my approach, such as a film about an artist who was stuck at home after an accident and used that time to ask thousands of her friends on Facebook who could come and give her a hug. The film actually documents an attempt to move from statuses to a face-to-face meeting and human warmth.”
Could it be that your focus on feelings of isolation and alienation has to do with the experience of immigration and the move to the United States?
“Yes, definitely. When I left Israel 12 years ago, I was young and I didn’t think in terms of immigration or the long term," said Oren. "Even today, I think life is a dynamic thing and I try to avoid definitions of my identity. On the other hand, when I tried to send 'In Contact' to festivals in Israel, they told me it wasn’t considered an Israeli film because it wasn’t in Hebrew. I have a hard time with that definition because I did it all myself, from the funding to the distribution, so I define it as an Israeli-American co-production.”
Why was it important to you to include quotes from other films, such as Bonnie and Clyde, for example, or a sex scene taken from Godard’s film 'Contempt,' in your own film?
“I think it goes back to things that disturbed me when I was working on my bachelor’s degree: the need to blur the boundary between the viewer and the actor and the desire of all of us to act," said Oren. "It also has to do with a subject I’ve started dealing with recently – representations of femininity in film. I based the two female characters on well-known actresses such as Brigitte Bardot because they themselves are trying to create that fantasy using scenes they direct in front of their webcams.
“In my next project, 'Penelope,' I continue along that line, trying to expose the false ideal that is constructed in 20th-century film – the ideal that says these women were like comets, something mysterious and unattainable. The big women stars did not necessarily look like the way they were shown on the screen. Their faces, which are engraved in our memories as an ideal of feminine beauty, are the result of direction, lighting, makeup and effects that create a very specific fantasy, and I wanted to see how that affects our perception of femininity. There is an ideal of womanhood that was created in film. There are costumes, a manner of speech, a certain body language. Even if it can be denied today, it is a standard that has stuck in our minds.”
And still, 14-year-old girls do not necessarily dream of becoming Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot, but rather Jennifer Lawrence, the heroine of 'The Hunger Games.'
“True. Our fantasies change over time. In my work, I respond to the fantasy of the 20th century, and at the same time I try to show that today, we become each other’s fantasies. It’s freeing, but it’s also paralyzing.”