What happens to us when we watch a documentary film? How do we process the information coming at us from the screen? Can it influence us or make us change our minds? Is film footage of any kind of reality – of the Israeli occupation in the territories, for example – capable of penetrating our preconceived ideas? Can it circumvent our established world view and, at least for a moment, make us see reality differently, more clearly, in an unbiased way? Or is our system of beliefs so entrenched that any such attempt is doomed to failure?
All of these questions roll around in the minds of the audience watching “The Viewing Booth,” a new documentary by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. The 50-year-old, Israeli-born director, screenwriter and editor has other highly acclaimed documentaries to his credit, including “The Inner Tour,” which followed a group of Palestinian tourists around Israel, and “The Law in These Parts,” about the judicial system in the occupied territories.
This time around, however, Alexandrowicz is sending viewers on a journey into their own consciousness. They are invited to spend some 70 minutes with the director and his protagonist, a young American-Jewish woman, in a confined space – a laboratory of sorts – to witness how she reacts to video clips being screened in front of her. The members of the audience see and hear her, and experience her reactions, but more importantly, they develop insight into themselves in the process.
The idea is simple. Alexandrowicz, who left Israel four years ago and lives in Philadelphia with his family, invited several university students who volunteered to come to his “lab.” He sat them in front of a screen on which he showed them YouTube footage filmed in the territories. Some of it was provided by B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Other footage is from more right-wing and conservative sources.
Alexandrowicz asked the students to pay particular attention to the feelings and thoughts they experienced while watching the videos, and to express them in words; he himself sat in an adjacent room, observing. Ultimately, the director decided to concentrate on just one student, 24-year-old Maia Levi, whose parents are Israeli and who describes herself as pro-Israeli.
Criticism and close-ups
It quickly becomes clear why Alexandrowicz decided to focus on Levi. Beyond the fact that her political views were different from his and allowed him to see what it was like to see the footage from the “other side,” Levi managed to articulate what she was thinking extremely well.
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She deliberates and asks questions. She wonders what’s going on outside the frame, what happened before the camera started rolling, who was holding it and what prompted the decision to film the specific incident. She observes the scenes with a critical eye, but the ongoing close-ups of her expressive face also reveal her feelings as she watches: pity, pain, revulsion, anger, compassion.
At times Alexandrowicz also permits his audience to catch a glimpse of the clips Levi is watching, creating a joint viewing experience, common ground for reflection and questioning.
“The Viewing Booth,” which was produced by Liran Atzmor, premiered last year at the DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv. More recently, it was shown at the Berlin festival. On Wednesday, it will be broadcast on in Israel by the Hot cable television company, on Channel 8.
“I don’t see documentary cinema as something that’s designed to change the world, to convince people, to change how they think, but that’s absolutely one of its roles,” Alexandrowicz told Haaretz by video conference from his home in Philadelphia.
“In the past, I was quite devoted to trying to influence society by means of documentary images. The  film ‘The Law in These Parts’ was the moment when everything purportedly came together. I found myself holding screenings of it at the prosecutors’ office, the public defender’s office, for teachers, all kinds of communities that interested me. At first, I believed it could create a discourse that would bring about change, but after some time, I began asking myself how effective it all was,” Alexandrowicz explained.
“For me, this was related to research I did for the film, when I tried to look at every documentary scrap that had been done on the history of the occupation. I discovered a lot of films and articles that had asked the right questions earlier and prompted the right criticism. It made me question what I was trying to do, and have doubts about the medium and what could be achieved with it, and led me to the conclusion that I needed to redirect the camera from the reality to the viewers – to see what was going on there, in their own eyes and minds.”
‘An opposite place’
He embarked on “The Viewing Booth” even before leaving Israel. He experimented with all kinds of ideas and techniques, although when he began his master’s degree at Temple University in Philadelphia and invited several students to his “viewing booth” – he was convinced that it was all just another experiment. He didn’t know it would actually become a film, but when Maia Levi sat down in front of the camera, he understood that he had found what he was looking for.
“In retrospect, I understood that I now had a chance to listen to the viewer for whom I had made all of my prior films. Although Maia wasn’t herself Israeli and my films had always begun with an Israeli audience, she sees things entirely differently than I do from a political standpoint. She comes from an opposite place, and my question had always been how to reach that audience. I understood that for me, she represents the kind of person whom I would have liked to influence through film. Which is why she fascinated me so much,” the director explained.
When Levi watches a video clip and sees an Israel Defense Forces soldier yelling at a Palestinian photographer to “get rid of the camera!” she rolls her eyes. When she sees footage of a terrorist lying on the ground, an armed soldier standing over him, she says it’s definitely an anti-Israeli video. It was not long before she admitted that when she saw the B’Tselem logo on a clip, she was sure it would be biased.
While watching a video of Israeli soldiers raiding a Palestinian home in the middle of the night and demanding that everyone in the household wake up without a thought for sleeping children – Levi’s steadfastness is suddenly undermined. For a moment, she begins identifying with the “foreigners” whose privacy has been violated, feeling pity for the children and saddened by what she has seen.
But after the mother of the household suddenly says something, Levi blurts out that she thinks the woman is lying – and asserts that the footage doesn’t provide the context of why the soldiers were doing what they were doing. It may look bad, but maybe there was a bomb in the house, she surmises.
A second later, her emotions flip again as she feels sorry for the children who are rudely awakened. This time, she’s also angry at the soldiers conducting the search. It doesn’t seem as if he’s really looking for anything, she says about one soldier; he’s just opening and closing a drawer. If you’re already waking up a family, at least conduct the search properly, Levi adds. She raises all kinds of ideas, but then pauses.
How, she asks, did B’Tselem get hold of all the video footage in the first place? Who shot the clips? What were the person’s hidden intentions? If he had wanted the children to be able to go back to sleep, he would have turned off the camera and the lights, and sent them back to bed. So why did he continue filming? It’s strange, she says.
(B’Tselem, according to its website, has a video department that helps activists in their efforts document human rights abuses in the occupied territories, and the organization also trains and provides cameras to Palestinians who, as “citizen journalists,” film life there.)
Beyond the frame
“Maia raises questions about how we arrange reality to justify the difficult image we are seeing and what we need to do in order for that image to better fit our world view,” Alexandrowicz said.
“And when she looks and all of a sudden attaches importance to the camera and the photographer – she is also going beyond the limits of the frame. If you think about it, this changes the image she is seeing from the outset. It’s one thing to see a child getting up in the middle of the night with the butt of a rifle in the frame, and entirely something else to see a man filming his own child waking up in the middle of the night. Later when she said that maybe there was a bomb, she was using her own imagination.”
“In retrospect,” the director continued, “I understand that I also wanted her to push the limits of the frame, but I wanted her to see it in the form of 50 years of raids on homes in the middle of the night, when 99 percent of the time, it has nothing to do with a bomb, but rather with [a desire for] control, because that way, the population knows that you’re there. That is what I wanted her to see.”
Witnessing Levi’s critical and frenetic thought processes is fascinating and at other times surprising. In the second half of the film, when Alexandrowicz invites her for a second session in the “viewing booth” – this time to take a look at herself watching the screen – something interesting happens. When they get to the clip with the nighttime raid on the Palestinian family’s home, the director asks Levi why she thought there was a bomb in the house, since it didn’t appear in the video.
Levi’s response was that her idea might have come from other videos she had seen or perhaps even from “Fauda,” the fictional Israeli television series about the IDF, available in the United States on Netflix. She admitted that she sees all kinds of materials and sometimes forgets what’s real and what isn’t.
In the process, then, the boundaries between reality and imagination are quickly breached, making it clear that the images that we see in documentary films and TV series are melded in our consciousness, becoming one big, thick mélange.
The impact of ‘Fauda’
Everything we watch influences how we think about things, Maia Levi told Haaretz in a Zoom conversation from Philadelphia, about the documentary. That’s particularly true, she noted, if you live in the United States, as she does, rather than Israel. Where else, she remarked, would such images come from if not from a television series? After all, she is not in Israel and even Israelis in Tel Aviv probably don’t on a daily basis see the kinds of things B’Tselem shows.
You see war films and they affect how we perceive things happening in real life, she continued, adding that films and TV shows like “Fauda” can sometimes have a more important influence than any documentary, because people don’t watch fictional films with the same critical eye.
Asked about her comment in “The Viewing Booth” that the B’Tselem videos actually strengthened her beliefs rather than undermining them, Levi said she had an example that might sound silly but is instructive: If you were certain that someone was cheating on you, you would likely look for anything that would confirm that suspicion and dispel anything contradictory. That, at least, is how her brain works, she said with a smile.
Levi said she watched the B’Tselem videos over and over and at first commented on everything that she saw as problematic with them. But when discussing them with Alexandrowicz, she understood that she also had to ask herself what she was missing, as a result of her critical attitude. We need to strike a balance and decide what is credible and what isn’t, she said. For her part, what she was looking at only confirmed her beliefs because she decided that B’Tselem had edited the clips for its own purposes.
Life in the U.S.
Alexandrowicz and his family do not plan on returning to Israel. Despite many years of political activity in Israel and making films dealing with various aspects of the Israeli occupation, he’s not comfortable today with the suggestion that they are in the United States for “political reasons.” As the years have passed, he has begun to grasp that he and his neighbors in Jerusalem don’t have a shared vision for the future.
“We couldn’t help but feel the extent to which we want to view Israel and to explain it to our children, in way that’s divorced from what surrounded us. I saw that I was becoming less active politically. There’s something in Israel’s essence that demands that a person be political. My wife and I wanted to create a bubble for ourselves or see what would happen to us if we cut ourselves off,” he explained.
“From my standpoint, it’s an apolitical process. Those who live in Israel do what is political, without closing their eyes and continuing to confront it.”
Alexandrowicz grew up in Jerusalem and studied at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School there. His film “The Inner Tour” won second prize at the 2002 DocAviv festival. His fictional work, “James Journey to Jerusalem” (2003), came in second place in the acting and music category at the Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.
“The Law in These Parts” solidified his serious status in the world of Israeli cinema: Among other distinctions, it won the award for best international documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and again at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
“When I looked at Maia, I could see the extent to which I was sometimes unaware of how my preconceptions affect how I see things,” the director said, referring to his work on “The Viewing Booth.”
“This viewpoint was very strong inside of me. It didn’t change how I understand this material, which presents the occupation or the regime in the territories, but it did give me a chance to look at myself as a spectator. I felt that an opportunity was being created here to show people this thing that is inside all of us, and which is usually somewhat invisible, that all of a sudden, there’s this cinematic tool that is a kind of reflective mirror that shows us how we act as viewers,” he explained.
Alexandrowicz added that while all of his earlier films had been made for viewers like Maia, his latest work has a different target audience.
“I always tried to think about the viewer who sees things differently than I do, who are more right-wing, more conservative,” he said. “This film is the first time that my interest actually lay in a liberal, more left-wing audience – people who think like me, and also journalists and documentary filmmakers who think they have a way to reach the other side. From my standpoint, ‘The Viewing Booth’ says: ‘We need to think about this in greater depth, because it’s a very complex and messy equation.”