During the time of the Spanish Civil War, Virginia Woolf received a letter from a prominent lawyer in London who asked her, perhaps provocatively: ‘How, in your opinion, are we to prevent war?’ In her answer Woolf suggested they first address his use of the word ‘we’ with a little thought experiment. What would happen, she asks him, if they both observe the images of war that are published every week? ‘Let us see,’ she writes, ‘whether when we look at the same photographs, we will feel the same things.’
So begins Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s statement on The Viewing Booth, a documentary which puts Woolf’s posited experiment into action. In 2017, Alexandrowicz converted a pair of editing suites on the campus of Temple University into a space for confrontation between viewer and filmmaker. In one room, a volunteer would peruse a selection of 40 video clips depicting volatile scenes of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Half the clips were from right-wing news outlets, while the other half were from B’Tselem, a pro-Palestine advocacy group; the sources were not indicated for the viewer. Alexandrowicz would monitor the viewer from the adjacent room, using his cameras to capture their reactions. He would scrupulously probe the viewer for their thoughts on the footage in order to document in real time the act of seeing — and, crucially, how personal bias shapes how someone processes what they see.
An encounter with a piece of art or information is not merely taking it in, but the entire sequence of thinking through what one has seen, filtering it through their perceptions and biases, and arriving at some conclusion or series of conclusions about it. Our information-inundated age has supposedly made us all more savvy consumers of media, but The Viewing Booth challenges that assumption. It suggests that an expanded awareness of how the media works has not helped people be more objective about what they see, but has instead made them more adept at twisting their interpretations of what they see to fit their established world views.
Alexandrowicz encountered this phenomenon through his earlier work as a documentarian. He won acclaim for films like The Inner Tour (2001) and The Law in These Parts (2011), both of which unsparingly depict injustices the Israeli state inflicts against Palestinians. Yet he found them inadequate for the task of actually changing any minds of Israelis or Israel supporters, and since he no longer felt it was his place as an outsider to act as a mediator to communicate the plight of Palestinians, he’s shifted to this more abstract approach to the issue. The film is highly conscious of its maker’s role as an intermediary between its own viewers and its content. Its simple construction clears room for a fascinating extended psychological profile in bias.
The subject of that profile is Maia Levy, a Temple student who, as the American daughter of two Israelis, went into the viewing booth with a particular set of assumptions on the topic at hand. We are not shown the footage she is watching; much of the film consists of different shots of her face, finding new ways to scrutinize her reactions. We infer the content of the videos from the questions she asks Alexandrowicz about them. The film’s most common refrain is some variation on “What is the context here?” Whenever watching something that apparently looks damning for Israeli forces, it is almost her default. Her equivocations intensify when she watches video of a nighttime raid on a Palestinian house, as she doesn’t just ask about context but actively speculates on justifications for the soldiers’ aggression, hypothesizing that they might have received a bomb report.
Again, however, this is not a character study of Maia Levy specifically or the Israeli defense mindset more broadly. This experiment could be applied on anyone, showing them videos on any subject. This conceit is sharpened in the film’s back half. Alexandrowicz brings Levy back into the viewing booth, having her watch the footage of herself in the booth earlier, asking her this time to comment on her own reactions. Now we have someone not merely working through their encounter with outside information, but also processing their own encounter. And lest an audience member for the documentary get too confident in their own objectivity, they’d do well to remember that the last aspect of this experiment is that, all along, it is being performed for someone else who is doing the exact same thing as the subject. It is, at times, a film about someone watching someone watching someone watching others … all of which is being watched by yet another party. You cannot look at The Viewing Booth without being implicated by its questions around spectatorship. There are multiple viewing booths in play with this film, and the last one is whatever space you occupy as you press “play.”
The Viewing Booth is currently available to stream via the Museum of the Moving Image.