Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s (“The Law in These Parts”) “The Viewing Booth” is perhaps the most stimulating and perspective-altering documentary that I have ever seen. A film with two subjects, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and an analysis of documentary filmmaking itself, “The Viewing Booth” is thoughtful and self-critical as it explores the manner in which we observe.
In short, the viewer of the film watches the watcher. A young woman, Maia Levy, enters a booth and sits before a computer screen and camera. Forty YouTube videos have been preselected by the filmmaker: half represent the perspective of Palestinians living under occupation, the other half presents the points of view of the Israeli settlers’ and soldiers’. Levy watches these at her own pace and is asked to speak her thoughts aloud as she reacts to the footage.
Levy is familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Her parents are Israeli, and she recently traveled to Hebron. She knows of the human-rights group, B’Tselem — which produced or uploaded many of the Palestinian-perspective videos — and has seen a few of the clips before. As she clicks from video to video, pausing occasionally to think and respond, the viewer watches her face lit by the blue glow of a screen.
On one level, this film is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite Levy’s even-handed deliverance of skepticism (there is much talk of events being “staged” — both clips of altruism and brutality by the Israeli military are given this label), she makes her own beliefs clear: Israel is acting morally, and there must be some justification for this mistreatment of Palestinians.
Her honesty is surprising, and her occasional racist commentary is embarrassing: “They lie a lot,” she says, referring to Arabs. She watches the videos with a confusing mix of open-mindedness and disbelief, acknowledging that these videos depict real events, but searching for the missing piece, the Arab instigation.
At one point, Levy asks: “Why would I believe this?” In other words, if she believes the Israeli army to be acting morally, why take this seriously?
Alexandrowicz has made more conventional films about the Israeli occupation, and this film offers a step back. His decision to make this film, to reframe the conversation around the viewer and observer of the situation in Palestine, becomes the film’s true subject by its conclusion. Through voice-over, he explains to the viewer and to Levy that the reason he focuses the film entirely on her, despite interviewing other students, is because she represents the intended viewer of his past films.
Levy’s steadfast skepticism is of interest to Alexandrowicz because it presents him with a frightening possibility: His films might do no more than preach to the choir. In this sense, “The Viewing Booth” is about the act of viewership. The film ends with a follow-up interview, in which Levy watches the recording of herself watching the films. The audience is three degrees removed from the footage, and the film begins to focus more pointedly on the process and psychology of watching.
Earlier in the film, Alexandrowicz states that these war videos “transform the viewer into a witness.” There is perhaps more responsibility coded into the latter term, as viewership is passive while witnessing is implicative. Alexandrowicz probes Levy’s desire to find fault and place blame on the Palestinians as an active resistance to this sort of implication, but Levy attributes the behavior to bias. She recognizes her filtered perspective, informed by her identity as the Jewish child of Israelis and muddled by fictional portrayals of the conflict. In a mildly hypocritical defense, Levy rejects these videos as possibly truthful because they do not show the entire picture. The videographer’s choices cannot be trusted, according to Levy, though she seems to have no problem with her own selective criticism of the clips.
Levy’s desire for an objective perspective illustrates the underlying challenge for a filmmaker like Alexandrowicz. Objectivity is impossible in documentary filmmaking, as the videographer is always making choices. The audience has room for choice and bias too: how we watch, from where and for how long, with or without context and research. All of this influences the way we perceive.
This film should be required viewing for anyone who writes about watching. The way Levy’s biases and Alexandrowicz’s anxieties interact in conversation provide a primer and warning on the dangerous illusion of objectivity. Our response to images, particularly images of war or injustice, cannot be unfiltered. When these images threaten to change a point of view that we associate with a core identity, objectivity is even less attainable.
This should not be a reason to give up on journalism and documentary filmmaking; this should only encourage the journalists to seek and acknowledge their biases. For the documentary viewer, the inevitability of subjectivity should prompt the consideration of what lies beyond the frame without neglecting to appreciate what is being shown and why.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.