“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” goes author Anaïs Nin’s frequently cited quote on human subjectivity. However overused, few summations could articulate the idea at the heart of Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s provocative non-fiction effort “The Viewing Booth” this precisely.
Capturing a viewer’s visceral and verbal responses to a series of short videos — all portraying devastating facets of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation — Alexandrowicz sets out to investigate what happens behind the eye of the beholder, while posing numerous queries as a result: Do we bring our own beliefs to what we watch? Is truth open to interpretation even if it’s supported by unassailable evidence? Does documentary film possess the power of changing hearts and minds for the better?
While these are hardly groundbreaking questions, asking and learning from them is perhaps more vital than it’s ever been in today’s exceedingly polarized world where many live in safe bubbles that confirm their biases. Still, Alexandrowicz smartly doesn’t limit the appeal of his film to present-day relevance, and kicks off his hypothesis with the historical context of a Virginia Woolf quote from the height of the Spanish Civil War, when the author wondered, “whether when we look at the same photographs, we will feel the same things.” Though Alexandrowicz, who continues to thoughtfully engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following 2011’s “The Law in These Parts,” is perhaps more successful in validating some obvious answers to the aforesaid questions than portraying an array of inconspicuous ones.
While this outcome lays bare the limits of “The Viewing Booth” as an experiment (despite Alexandrowicz’s insistence on not labeling his film as one), it is also the film’s chief attribute centered on Maia Levy, a young Jewish American student tasked to walk viewers through her way of seeing things. While Levy isn’t the only subject who enters the film’s titular stall, she is the only one director Alexandrowicz chooses to focus on and even bring back months later for a second session. In that, the majority of the feature’s economical running time follows Levy as she interprets footage presented to her by the filmmaker in a laboratory-like setting. The short films she is supplied are either by the Jerusalem-based organization B’Tselem with a mission to reveal human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories or by pro-IDF forces. As the pro-Israel Maia views what Alexandrowicz had selected for her — mostly media from the B’Tselem cluster — we watch her watch, interrogate and then downright dismiss them as fabrications.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experience of witnessing Maia survey and reject truths registers as more frustrating than illuminating at a time where people routinely denounce proof and data. Though what’s fascinating about the admittedly trying practice is the way Alexandrowicz manages to zero in on the real-time emotional battle that unfolds on Maia’s face. We can often detect that the young woman is guided by a moral code that is at direct odds with her uncompromising belief system. And because of this, Maia habitually defaults to denial, convincing herself that the videos are staged, guarding her worldview threatened by the authenticity of the images that tell an entirely different story.
Alexandrowicz’s closeups inspect Maia’s puzzled face and anxious eyes as she watches masked soldiers raid a home and immediately looks for loopholes in the narrative, wondering why the kids aren’t more upset, why the mother is overacting and how would someone even know to film this? That last question proves to be a go-to shortcut to rejection for her — she reaches for it often, including when a soldier yanks and kicks a child in a secret recording. In an unexpected moment, Alexandrowicz almost accidentally uncovers Maia’s internal dilemma, when the student assumes kids throwing stones at a house are Arabs. Her comeback when she finds out that they are Israelis is a distressing one — while she clearly doesn’t condone the behavior, she defensively questions what the other side had done to draw such hostility and invite such indifference from the nearby soldiers.
One wonders whether “The Viewing Booth” could have gained something from featuring additional subjects — a broader perspective from a variety of voices, and not just the one Alexandrowicz was most interested in converting. There are also ethical and practical questions that percolate but go unanswered throughout: Is it fair or even productive to process such weighty deliberations through the lens of one young person only? These considerations aside, “The Viewing Both” proves to be at its most absorbing when it resembles a cinematic infinity mirror of sorts. With her views unchanged, Maia returns to the same booth months later and watches and reacts to her past self, while we watch both of the Maias, as well as Alexandrowicz view and reflect on them. Somewhere among those audio-visual layers and echoes is our own self image, also demanding to be inspected.