Berlin’s top doc prize honors Raed Andoni's ethically problematic film, which recreates traumatic experiences in an Israeli detention center.
Having already indulged an exercise of soul-baring filmed psychoanalysis with “Fix Me,” director Raed Andoni extends his outdated idea of therapy to others in “Ghost Hunting,” an ethically problematic documentary in which Palestinian men recreate the circumstances of their incarceration and torture by the Israeli occupiers. Using the largely debunked notion that acting out one’s trauma is a means towards catharsis, Andoni has his various “actors” verbally and physically abuse one another while he watches from the side, exchanging the charge of narcissism that accompanied his previous doc with that of sadism.
Glowing pre-premiere praise from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, the sensationalized emotional charge of the subject, plus Berlin’s best documentary prize means “Ghost Hunting” will garner far more attention than it deserves. The concept must have sounded hard-hitting and original on paper, considering the number of respected funding bodies — Doha, Sundance, Sanad, Venice’s Final Cut, etc. — who boarded the project.
Andoni placed an ad in a newspaper looking for participants who’d been imprisoned by the Israelis. After the casting call, they’d help construct a simulacrum of the notorious Al-Moskobiya interrogation center and then be assigned the roles of either prisoner or tormentor. The director himself had been a detainee there when he was 18, so in a bid to exorcise some of those demons, he conceived this project to “help” others come to grips with issues such as detention, powerlessness, violence, and the occupation in general.
On a superficial level, the film confronts the psychological toll of Israeli apartheid in a seemingly punch-in-the-gut way — which could explain the initial wave of positive reactions. Breaking it down, however, what’s Andoni really doing besides deliberately orchestrating clashes to trigger damaged psyches? If anything, it seems cruel and unusual to mess with the participants’ heads in this way, even if they went into it with their eyes open — and no way to tackle the soul-crushing experience of oppression and captivity.
Following the casting call, Andoni asked the selected actors to delineate the cavernous space of a concrete basement in Ramallah to match their memories of Al-Moskobiya. Many of the men were incarcerated for years, so memories come back as they recreate cells and discuss details such as the size of the small apertures in the doors. The participants come from various walks of life: Abdallah Moubarak is a blacksmith, Atef Al-Akhras is a set designer, etc.; only Ramzi Maqdisi is an actor, so he’s charged with playing Mohammed Khattab, the resistance fighter whose story is the key narrative Andoni wants to recreate.
Maqdisi is brow-beaten until, exhausted and not allowed a toilet break, he urinates in his pants. The men playing the Israelis then use his body to mop up his urine. Does such intense humiliation really serve to exorcise traumatic memories, or will it merely create new ones? And how can an audience watch this and think, “Israeli soldiers are sadistic,” without saying the same about Andoni himself, especially when he calmly watches as one man repeatedly bangs another’s head against a wall? Acting as assistant director, Wadee Hanani has it right when he tells Andoni, “You want us to be pawns in your game of chess.”
Black-and-white animation by Luc Perez featuring a young man tied to a chair with his head covered by a hood, makes a deeper impact than any of the shenanigans disguised as a means towards psychological release. Praise at least can be given for the way the graphics are mixed with live action, as the drawn figure peaks below his hood and sees his interrogator’s real shoes facing him. Given Andoni’s fondness for psychoanalysis, it would have been more enlightening if he brought back the shrink from “Fix Me” to analyze him anew, focusing on what drives him to stage such power games. Hunting ghosts is a legitimate pursuit, but only when the goal is to eliminate the specters, not multiply them.