The Power Games of Documentary Filmmaking

Galia Yahav
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From 'Beyond Guilt.' Deconstructing self-evident conventions. Credit: Ruti Sela
Galia Yahav

Ruti Sela’s father, whom she meets in Buenos Aires after not having been in contact with him for eight years, reads his daughter’s Tarot cards and explains, “It’s as though instead of living you are observing your life from the outside. You lack the humility to take part more, to be more involved. To some extent you are your own judge. Behind your sincerity and your naivete, you are a person who labels, catalogs herself, passes judgment on herself.” He recommends that she live her life without compromises and describes her situation as a “delayed renaissance.” Immediately afterward, he asks for 150 pesos as payment for his reading. This scene takes place in Sela’s video “El Palabrero” (“The Words Man”; 2010, 35 minutes), which is one of the works in the artist’s comprehensive solo show at MoBY (Museums of Bat Yam), in conjunction with SMBA (the project space of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). All told, 12 video works from the past decade are on view, curated by Joshua Simon.

The father is a charismatic street philosopher who lives from myths, hand-to-mouth, who sees poetry in all things and is at every moment aware of the condition of humanity, its pathos and absurdity, and who is, one can safely surmise, an intolerably difficult parent. “Pay me a little more, I need to buy goods to stay alive,” he implores.

“El Palabrero” sharpens the question of who the implicit protagonist is in this exhibition; it is Sela herself. In many of the video works she appears as interviewer, active participant, actor playing herself. As a whole, the works can be seen as an extended self-portrait. Among the subjects they deal with are a Haredi demonstration against a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, a night of debauchery of young people (“Nothing Happened,” 2007), seductions in night club toilets, web chats that expose militarism in sex (the trilogy “Beyond Guilt,” in collaboration with Maayan Amir, 2003-2005), pretending to be a Spanish tourist and folklorist in Cairo and a bizarre tap dance with toes bared.

Another explicit protagonist is art: Many of the works are about the process of producing works of art, and Sela is very good at demystifying this process. She adopts an ironic tone toward her intentions and repeatedly sows suspicions about the image of the reliable, decent artist.

In her brilliant work “For the Record” (2013, 18 minutes), Sela paints portraits of the staff of the legal department in the Jerusalem Municipality while documenting the dynamics that are created between her and them. The employees agreed to have their portraits done based on the popular conception of “artist” and “portrait,” certain that they would get a fine rendering of their faces. In the video, Sela is seen sitting across from their desks with a silly painter’s easel, sketching their faces indifferently as she follows their behavior. “Everything related to art is always very interesting to me,” one of them says. “Every work of art is magical.” The subject tells her he is interested in seeing her “products,” and she asks him if he’s referring to paintings. At first it’s very funny, even brilliant: transformation of the representative of power into a stupid art lover. But it also generates empathy, because any of us could be filmed with incriminating intent. In addition, he answers her sincerely about a possible infringement of privacy and copyright, effectively affording her a line of defense in the face of a possible lawsuit for the humiliation inflicted on him.

Sela also examines the limits on the rights of subjects she films in a 2012 work, this time her students. In a workshop she teaches, she repeatedly takes advantage of her authority to draw provocatively close to them and challenge them with speculations about what would happen if she were to kiss them or ask them to sit on her “for the sake of a fine frame.” While propositioning them, she asks how they feel about it, explains the difficulty of refusing, since they might regret it; likens herself to a former president and them to his female aide, and even when they reject her, she argues with them about who is actually in control of the situation and how free their refusal is. To one male student Sela whispers “Come to me, come to me.” This, she says, is an artistic quote from a work by the American installation artist Vito Acconci, adding that they must do what she says to pass the course.

Like the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle (who forces an artificial interaction that ostensibly is about one thing while she offers the viewer different information above the subject’s head), Sela is a professional setter of traps. With the aid of her provocative posture of innocence, she dredges up hypocrisy, conservatism, misogyny, groundless cruelty, tautologies, self-contradictions, resentments, fears, shamefulness and lack of shamefulness. By unraveling the unwritten agreements about purity of intentions, credibility and transparency, she illustrates the manipulations that underlie documentary work.

The tense encounters among all the explicit protagonists of the exhibition hint that the implicit protagonist is violence, and more precisely, the violence at the basis of the law. Violence is never seen in any frame, but it is the element that structures all the situations and subverts the norm like a bad smell that cannot be expunged, because there is a rotting corpse in the building’s foundations.

Sela deconstructs the self-evident conventions that underpin different 
social interactions, and with the aid of nonsense, flagrant seductiveness, embarrassment or provocation exposes their inbuilt ideology. In this way, she shows the correlation between sexuality and violence, family and utilitarianism, liberalism and overwhelming alienation, between a “bad” mental state and ideology. Sela interviews prostitutes – they are akin to supporting actors in the exhibition – to whom she attaches herself time and again. A prostitute who says, “I hate men, I hate men so much,” and falls mute, a prostitute who is interviewed about true love and monogamous relations, a young man who refuses to exchange a precious neck chain for a blow job – these and others expose the commercial underpinning of the physical interaction. These situations allow Sela to sharpen the issue of power relations and demonstrate the tariff on love and the exploitation or price tag attached to every human gesture.

Sela’s distinctive power, also evident in other witty and critical video works, lies in her deep anarchic refusal of any sentiment that is offered without the price tag involved. For her, greater charlatanism is greater humanness, humanness precisely because it is charlatanism. When the boundary of good taste is crossed, that is her point of departure.

Even though the viewing time for all the works is three hours, it is good to see Sela’s videos presented together. This rich exhibition underscores her strength and her importance in the Israeli art field.

Exhibition by Ruti Sela at MoBY, 6 Struma Street, Bat Yam; Tues-Thurs 4 P.M. – 8 P.M., Fri and Sat 10 A.M. – 2 P.M. Until July 5.

A screen grab from 'For the Record.' An ironic tone toward her intentions. Credit: Lena Gomon