Firm and Faulty Beliefs: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “The Viewing Booth”
From climate change and Brexit, to disagreements about how to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, the world feels more polarized than ever. The rise of social media has allowed facts and data to flow more freely, but it has also seen an increase in misinformation and the emergence of fake news. For a filmmaker like Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, whose work exposes the reality of life in the West Bank, it poses the question: how can you instigate change in a media-saturated world dominated by cynicism and eroding trust?
Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth (2019) is an attempt to generate new insights into the psychology of the modern viewer. A unique encounter between filmmaker and audience, the film is ostensibly a social experiment, with the director inviting a group of American students to sit and watch a selection of videos depicting Palestinian life under Israeli military rule. Each student is presented with 40 short films to choose from. Half are sourced from B’Tselem, a non-profit organization documenting human rights violations in Israeli-occupied territories, the other half produced by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Alexandrowicz allows his subjects to choose what they watch; all he asks is that they describe how the videos make them feel.
Many of these videos were recorded on camera phones, with user-generated content like this often used as a tool to advocate for human rights. However, in an attempt to convey a sense of authenticity, this aesthetic has also been appropriated as a way to perpetuate propaganda wars, leading to what some pundits have referred to as a “post-truth” world, where conspiracy theorists and skeptics coexist in a media landscape where the truth has become an almost mythical concept. As a filmmaker whose work advocates for social justice, Alexandrowicz’s experiment is an attempt to understand what this means for the non-fiction image. Do documentaries still have the ability to change minds, or are they merely another piece of dismissible evidence in the post-truth discourse?
Part documentary, part psychological experiment, the studio Alexandrowicz uses to film his subjects has the cold and clinical feel of a laboratory. The students enter a viewing booth, and as they watch these videos, a camera looks out from the screen to record their responses. We only see snippets of the films they’re watching, instead relying on their reactions to piece together what’s happening. What begins as a simple attempt to understand the viewing habits of these students quickly expands into a wider study of confirmation bias and our tendency to be drawn towards information that supports our beliefs.
This form of cognitive bias is best observed in Maia Levy, a curious and articulate young woman who quickly becomes the central focus of the film. A candid and enthusiastic supporter of Israel, Maia has strong opinions about these videos and isn’t afraid to express them. She admits to finding the footage from B’Tselem upsetting. “Those videos confuse me,” she confesses to Alexandrowicz after revealing that she sometimes watches them at home, “They play with your head. Sometimes I’m like wow, that’s really awful. But, you know, I’m only human.” Despite her genuine empathy for the Palestinians who appear in these videos, she’s also very suspicious of the filmmaker’s intentions. “It’s overdramatic,” she says while watching a mother console her crying child during a nighttime raid of a home by the IDF. “It looks bad, but what if there’s been a complaint that there’s a bomb in this house? They don’t give you any context at all.”
Maia’s reluctance to embrace the videos produced by B’Tselem is hardly surprising, but her criticism of the pro-Israeli footage comes as quite a shock. She describes a video depicting an Israeli soldier giving food to Palestinian children as “clearly fake” and another as “obviously staged.” An educated woman who refuses to turn away from things she finds difficult to watch, Maia is the perfect subject for Alexandrowicz’s experiment. Understanding the futility of making films for audiences that agree with your worldview, he’s keen to learn how to reach someone like Maia, whose point of view diverges from his own. However, as she navigates her way through these films, her views become more entrenched, with each new video chipping away at the veneer of her objectivity to reveal the foundations of a deeply embedded belief system.
Six months after the initial study, Alexandrowicz invites Maia back to watch the footage again, except this time he makes her review her reactions from the previous session. He doesn’t tell her why he’s doing this; instead, he simply gives her time and space to interrogate her own thoughts and feelings. The film’s Hebrew title is Mirror, and there’s certainly plenty here that speaks to the reflective qualities of the cinematic image, and as Maia provides her own candid analysis, the audience is also invited to take a step back and question their own viewing habits.
Alexandrowicz shows Maia the footage of the house raid again. She watches herself question why the children are so upset and why their mother is being so dramatic, laughing at her impetuousness, but still refusing to budge from her original opinion that the video lacks context. Then he asks her a simple but disarming question, one that fully exposes her bias and leaves her momentarily speechless. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but one that reveals the questions that burn at the heart of the film. How can people cling to extreme or irrational views in the face of facts, and how might this be violently used against us? In a world where ideology overrides empathy and logic, The Viewing Booth suggests we should be less concerned about what we’re watching, and more with the prism we choose to view it through.
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth premiered at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival.
Viewers in the U.K. have a chance to see the film early September at the Open City Documentary Film Festival.