Open City Docs film review: The Viewing Booth
Matthew Turner | On 25, Jun 2020Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz
Cast: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Maia Levy
Watch The Viewing Booth online in the UK: Open City Documentary Festival
The Viewing Booth is streaming as part of the Open City Documentary Festival. For the full line-up, click here. It also streamed as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest. For more information on that online festival, click here.
The set-up for The Viewing Booth is extremely simple. Filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz invites American university student Maia Levy – an enthusiastic supporter of Israel – into the titular booth and asks her to watch and comment on a series of videos. Most of them are supplied by Jerusalem-based organisation B’Tselem, which is dedicated to revealing human rights violations in Israeli-occupied territories.
Maia watches 11 videos in total. Some of the ones we see include: a video of masked Israeli soldiers searching a family apartment at 3am, waking young children to do so; a video of Israeli teenagers throwing stones and shouting abuse at a woman who is filming them from a distant window; a video, filmed in secret, of a soldier kicking a young boy; an upsetting video of a woman verbally abusing another woman while a soldier looks on; and a video in which soldiers are kind to two young boys.
As Maia watches the videos, Alexandrowicz – who’s present in the next room – films her in close-up from a screen-mounted camera, recording her facial reactions as she processes what she’s watching. Sometimes he asks her to watch a particular video, sometimes Maia chooses the video herself. Occasionally, Alexandrowicz asks Maia to clarify or expand on her comments. She reveals that she’s familiar with B’Tselem’s work, but although she watches their videos (she’s seen some of them before), she regards them as propaganda. As a result, she frequently picks up on details that convince her the videos are staged. Why does one of the young boys in the apartment appear to forget his name? Why aren’t the children more upset? How did the person filming know the soldier was going to kick the boy?
Six other students were involved in Alexandrowicz’ original project (we see brief glimpses of them), but only Maia is invited back for a second session. This time, Alexandrowicz asks her to watch back his edited footage of her previous reactions. He asks her revealing questions, such as why she never focused on the masks the soldiers were wearing. (Amusingly, Maia also comments on his own directorial choices, such as showing her through the window between their rooms.)
The ensuing discussion is fascinating. The phrase “confirmation bias” is never used in the film, but that’s unquestionably what’s happening, as time and again, Maia finds ways to justify what she’s watching so that it conforms to her strongly held preconceptions. What’s more intriguing is that she’s fully aware that she’s doing it. As Alexandrowicz comments – both in person to Maia and via voiceover on the film – her reactions force him, as a documentary filmmaker, to reassess the perceived power of non-fiction images.
Alexandrowicz’s film is often frustrating, but it’s also deeply revealing, especially in light of the way viral videos occupy so much of the news today. It’s simple enough to say that people see what they want to see, but Alexandrowicz’ film explores and examines that process in intimate detail, with both the director and the audience forced to examine their own preconceptions as a result.
The Viewing Booth is available to rent for £3 at the Open City Documentary Festival from 12th September to 15th September 2020.