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The power and peril of documentaries in a skeptical culture

The new documentary The Viewing Booth asks if images are losing their power.

Maia Levy in The Viewing Booth.
Atzmor Productions

On January 6, watching the footage of the US Capitol, I wondered what I would have seen if I were still 15 years old.

Back in the mid-’90s, I was a homeschooled high schooler in a profoundly conservative homeschooling community. My friends and I spent our Friday nights in small group “worldview” studies. Evangelical leaders on VHS tapes taught us that the US Constitution was divinely inspired, that America’s founders were all devoted Christians, trickle-down Reaganomics and male-led churches and governments were God’s plan for the world, and that you could understand people by slotting everyone into “competing worldviews,” for which we had a handy chart.

The chart was a decoder ring, letting us see through “media bias” and “liberal lies” to arrive at an objective view on the truth. That was the basis of the whole project, we were told: to learn to think critically about what we saw or heard or read. Thus educated, we would be impervious to bias. We would be the ones who saw the world the right way.

On January 6, I imagined being my 10th-grade self, watching the events that I now consider to have been an insurrection unfold on the nightly news — all we had back then — against the backdrop of my worldview grid. I would have noticed that some people were flying Christian flags, or repeating talking points I’d heard before about liberty and freedom. I would, I think, have seen Christian heroes, standing up for liberty and against oppression.

Would I have found the violence disturbing, I wondered? Would I have found the footage shocking?

Probably. But thanks to that worldview grid, I would also have defense mechanisms to help me push back against my discomfort. I would have found a way to justify what I was seeing. It’s what our textbooks often did when confronted with many violent historical facts — the entire history of race in America, or the uneasy truth about what our fledgling nation did to its indigenous population in the course of westward expansion.

As a teen, I learned that Bill Clinton was unfit to be president because of his sexual conduct, but that Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich — despite his own scandals — was just fine. I heard you could be “pro-life” and still excuse those who advocated for torture and war. I could believe that slavery, as abstractly as I understood it, was fundamentally bad, and simultaneously accept the suggestion of a “Christian hero” biography checked out of my church library in upstate New York that Robert E. Lee was someone to admire and emulate.

As a community, we found a way to show that what seemed wrong was right, actually, in this case.

Eager to please the adults, with almost no exposure to anyone who thought differently, I assumed the grown-ups were right. So when those folks stormed the Capitol, what 15-year-old me would have seen were patriots revolting against an unjust power grab, fulfilling the founders’ wishes and, by extension, God’s.

I’m pretty sure being confronted with facts that challenged my beliefs, and then finding a way around them, would only have made me feel more confident that I was right.

How we look at images determines what we see

I was startled to hear that same analysis — that knowing how to circumvent challenges to my worldview would only strengthen it — from the lips of the subject of a new documentary, The Viewing Booth.

I first saw the film at the True/False Film Festival in March 2020, long before the Capitol insurrection, a week before most Americans realized this pandemic was going to be a thing. It stuck in my mind all year. I thought about it when I watched video footage of George Floyd’s murder. I thought about it as I heard people declare that protests against police brutality and unrest across the country were staged or “false flag” operations. I thought about it while watching videos of my co-religionists (albeit in a branch I’ve left behind) protesting common-sense public health measures by gathering in public squares to sing songs I know.

The Viewing Booth isn’t about any of those things — though, in a real sense, it’s about all of them. Israeli documentarian Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has long been an activist opposed to the occupation of Palestine, and has made films that try to show what’s going on in the hope of shifting his audience’s opinion.

That process has made him think deeply about the ethics of documentary; for instance, after making his 2001 film The Inner Tour, he realized that as an Israeli, he could no longer in good conscience point his camera at Palestinians in occupied territories. He remained committed to the work of being an activist-documentarian, but started thinking about how we watch as much as what we see.

Alexandrowicz shot The Viewing Booth at Temple University, where he is a researcher. He asked American students who said they were interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enter a constructed viewing booth, where they watched videos related to the occupation uploaded to the internet by both activists and pro-Israeli outlets, and to verbalize their thoughts.

He ended up centering the film on the reactions of one young woman, Maia Levy, an American of Israeli descent whose stance on videos originating in the West Bank city of Hebron is in opposition to Alexandrowicz’s. Levy enters the viewing booth twice; first to watch several videos, and then again six months later to comment on the footage of her original session.

In her first visit to the booth, Levy is presented with a menu of videos, from which she chooses several to watch. Some of them have been shared online by human rights activist group B’Tselem and others have been shared by pro-occupation groups.

One depicts a group of Israeli soldiers raiding a home in the middle of the night, terrifying the children there and providing little explanation. In another, a soldier in an occupied zone brusquely grabs a child who happens by. A third shows soldiers giving gifts to smiling Palestinian children. Levy tells Alexandrowicz that her parents, both Israeli, have dismissed footage from B’Tselem as manipulative and manipulated garbage, and that she’s also recently traveled to the region seen in the videos.

She is inclined to believe the videos from pro-Israeli sources, and to find ways to dismiss the pro-Palestinian ones. Levy narrates her reactions to Alexandrowicz as she watches, remarking upon the moments when she is skeptical of what she is seeing.

Levy doesn’t think the videos are faked, exactly. But she wonders what key information might have been left out to cast them in a new light. Did the soldiers receive a tip that a bomb was planted in the home? Did they pay those children to be filmed receiving gifts? Why is a camera present in the first place? She pauses the videos and explains what she’s thinking, answering questions Alexandrowicz poses to unpack her reactions even more.

The point of The Viewing Booth isn’t to hear what someone like Levy thinks about the occupation and the conflict. Nor is it to demonstrate that Levy’s pre-existing beliefs affect how she interprets what she sees; that’s obvious. Instead, Alexandrowicz wants to hear her vocalize her thoughts as she watches, and to think about what they demonstrate about how we view images today.

Can “critical thinking” about media have unintended consequences?

I talked to Alexandrowicz in July 2021, nearly 18 months after I first saw The Viewing Booth and on the verge of its public premiere. What he noted during our conversation was that making the film taught him a lot about the defense mechanisms we tend to bring to images that challenge our beliefs — something we all do, no matter how objective we believe we are.

Alexandrowicz largely leaves his personal opinion out of the film, instead interrogating Levy’s framework for viewing the videos on offer. His most basic aim was to gain insight into the challenges of using images and video to change people’s minds on issues that populate today’s specific media landscape. He was coming at this subject from a very particular vantage point: as a documentarian working in these still-early days of the 21st century.

Watching video in the present context is different than it was in the 1990s, or in the 1960s, or in the 1920s, or at the dawn of moving images. One obvious reason is that the world we live in now is saturated by images and videos, which can have a numbing effect. We’re privy to intimate images of so much more of the world’s suffering today than previous generations ever were.

On top of that, most everyone who watches videos today has also made videos of their own — probably on the smartphone in their pocket — which means even as audience members, we’re more aware of how we choose what goes in the frame and what stays out of it, and how those choices can manipulate the viewer. We already bring some knowledge of the filmmaking process to the screen.

Another factor, Alexandrowicz says, might be even more impactful. When I talked to him about The Viewing Booth, he noted that education often involves learning how to think critically of the media we consume, which is vital and yet can have unintended consequences. “Critiquing, reframing, all the tools that come from critical theory and critical viewing are sort of very accessible now to audiences, which is great,” he said. “But at the same time, when people are viewing images that are difficult for them ideologically, these critical tools become a defense mechanism.”

Learning to carefully consider the images we see in media is good, because it hopefully means we don’t just swallow what we see on screen without thinking about it. Simultaneously, we come away with tools we can use to reject images that conflict with our views. “It creates a situation in which criticizing media is a way to not see what it is,” he says.

“Thinking critically” is vital to living wisely today. But that doesn’t mean the same approach can’t be deployed to rewrite reality.

When do we turn reality into fiction to avoid the truth?

The context in which we encounter videos and images has also shifted, especially in a streaming age. News, entertainment, and verité footage uploaded to the internet by any random person can and often is all accessed through the same screen or device. If you’ve ever watched a TV show where actors play out a scene that looks similar to what you’re seeing in a YouTube clip, and you’re watching both the show and the YouTube clip on similar screens, it’s even more difficult to resist having the fiction frame how you understand the nonfiction.

In The Viewing Booth, Levy accepts that the video in which soldiers break into a home where children are sleeping shows something that actually happened — that the raid wasn’t, itself, fiction. But she floats the possibility that the soldiers might have heard there was a bomb in the house, and when Alexandrowicz asks where that thought came from, she realizes it’s from the Israeli Netflix drama Fauda. Whether or not a bomb is present, the images of crying, traumatized children are powerful. Still, the possibility of the bomb as an excuse changes things for Levy.

For Alexandrowicz, Levy’s thought process illustrates another defense mechanism, which has to do with the way we watch fiction and the way we watch nonfiction. The difference between the two can be surprisingly hard to parse, but Alexandrowicz thinks of it as the difference between two forms of consciousness. There’s the “nonfiction consciousness,” which he defines as “the knowledge or belief that what we are looking at has a direct relation to reality, to the real world.” It’s the state of mind in which we watch documentaries; it’s why we get angry when we find out that something in a documentary is faked but not disclosed — say, the voice of a human, using an AI.

In contrast, when we watch with our “fiction consciousness,” we expect a level of mediation. “Someone wanted to portray reality, and then they created a production and they cast people to be in that situation,” he says. That mediation gives us a layer of remove. Someone who gets killed onscreen in a film, we assume, didn’t really die. A crying person is acting. It’s emotionally easier to bear.

Because we have these two consciousnesses at our disposal, Alexandrowicz hypothesizes that another defense mechanism develops when we “fictionalize” the nonfiction, by finding a way to insert a layer between ourselves and the image. In other words, we try to find a way to cast the nonfiction as fiction. “If [Levy] could see the same image, but experience it in a more fiction-consciousness way, that would take away some of the weight of images threatening her,” Alexandrowicz suggested.

In a way, I think that’s what many people found themselves doing on January 6. Media coverage and politicians’ speeches seemed more devoted to bending the insurrection into the form of a Hollywood blockbuster than grappling with the deep rot it unveiled. A similar response seems to pop up whenever a huge, traumatic event is unfolding. Thinking of the news as another episode of TV or an action thriller, however unconsciously, helps us believe that we fully understand what we are watching. Rarely is that the case.

Is there any way forward?

Becoming more critical of images and videos thanks to our collective status as both viewers and creators, and our understanding of the way videos and images can manipulate the truth, has contributed to an overall sense among contemporary audiences that what we see cannot be trusted and requires further interrogation. On balance, Alexandrowicz agrees, that’s good.

However, if that baseline of increased suspicion makes it harder for any of us to maintain a “nonfiction consciousness” — to believe that images can teach us true things about the world — what happens to documentary? To the news? To activists who make videos? If the trend toward skepticism and mistrust continues — or even worsens, with the mounting certainty of high-quality deepfakes just over the horizon — what happens next?

After watching The Viewing Booth, I wondered whether, had I been my 15-year-old self during the Capitol insurrection, I would have been convinced at all by the images I was seeing that something was wrong. I thought about people who saw videos of George Floyd, or of an angry mob forcibly entering the halls of Congress, and were able to deploy defense mechanisms that strengthened their existing views. I wondered when I’ve done it myself.

There is no simple solution, no good way to easily navigate inherent disbelief.

One thing The Viewing Booth made me think about, however, is the difference between objectivity and reflexivity, and how all of us could stand to more frequently reflect on the act of viewing. (Interestingly, the Hebrew title of the film is Mirror.) “I think the only thing I come out of the film with, something that allows me to move forward, is this idea that everything is so polarized, but maybe one thing that could still be unpolarized is reflecting on how the process of subjectivity works,” Alexandrowicz said.

Looking for, confronting, and scrutinizing the reasons we interpret a video or image a particular way can help us come to terms with the whys of it — and combat the tendency to believe that we are “objective” viewers. You probably unconsciously know that your own beliefs factor into how much you trust the image in front of you. But directly acknowledging as much can have a powerful effect. “What it taught me is that when I’m thinking of how to maybe try to convince people of things — not that [Levy] was convinced in the film, but there was a process there — is that maybe a question mark is more effective than an exclamation mark,” Alexandrowicz explained.

For him, that lesson will affect the way he approaches his future work, and how he thinks about media literacy: “Usually, we refer to media literacy as educating people on how to better read media and understand it. But I think what this film suggests is that there is another part of media literacy, and that is understanding ourselves as viewers.”

For me, it shifts how I view myself. I suspect that I sometimes assume I am more of an “objective” viewer than a subjective one because I’m critical of what I watch, as a good 21st century viewer with a camera in my pocket. But does that actually make me more objective? Or am I falling into the same trap I would have when I was 15, by separating myself from what upsets me and finding ways to sidestep what bothers me? How would I know?

That awareness gives me a new set of questions to interrogate myself with. When am I using my critical eye as a way to reinforce my own biases, or to avoid being threatened by the weight of what I am seeing? Can I reflect on those responses, rather than attributing them only to the footage I’ve just watched?

It’s hard work, but work worth doing. There is no going back. We are all living in our own little viewing booths — and if we want to know the world as it is, and even love it, and maybe change it, we’ve got to make sure we are looking at it straight on.

The Viewing Booth is playing in limited theaters and is available to digitally rent for a limited time through the Museum of the Moving Image’s virtual cinema platform.