Failing from home

With a commission from Glasgow Short Film Festival, video-essayist Jessica McGoff recently published a 10-minute reflection on her experience of attending online film festivals. In this piece, McGoff reflects on the conflation of domesticity and cinematic space, and pins some hope on the potential of film festivals, through curation, to resist the homogenising trend of streaming monopolies. In the last section of the video, she recalls watching Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, 2020) and feeling questioned about the ethics of spectatorship, as “[t]he film altered the space around me as much as that space provided viewing context”. This reminded me of some notes I had made a few months back when I watched this film, at a different online festival, at home. I was also struck by an ethical dissatisfaction, a discomfort that I struggled to articulate, so I appreciated the chance provided by McGoff’s film to reopen that question.

Screening Room: on digital film festivals from Jessica McGoff on Vimeo.

Purple Sea is an account of the Syrian filmmaker’s journey from Turkey to Greece on a boat which capsized with over 300 people on board. Alzakout was wearing a camera on her wrist and this footage, captured accidentally while she tries to stay afloat, makes up most of the film. Her voiceover situates this moment in a personal timeline of displacement and love, which brings the viewer into its confidence to share memories of joy and hardship. It would be possible to call the footage beautiful, with the shimmer of the sun on the Mediterranean, the slow movements of objects and people underwater. But 42 people died on that trip, so formal beauty is not the point. The filmmaker first considered giving the footage to Forensic Architecture to demand accountability for Greece’s delay in launching a rescue. The camera is called to witness, and the film then produces a framework where the spectator is also asked to witness. The intimate voiceover, the impression of liveness from real-time, shaky footage, and the embodied point of view carry a strong demand for empathetic viewing, but they may also hit the limits of this identification.

I watched Purple Sea as part of the 18th edition of Document Human Rights Film Festival. As a member of the festival board, I think Document went well: the programme was both weighty and exciting, the conversation events were generous, and the platform ran smoothly from an end-user perspective. A year into the pandemic, the online film festival format is gradually crystallising into familiar forms, within a range of pragmatic choices and platform affordances. Before the festival, we had discussed the need to consider the conditions of viewing. Many human rights films deal with painful subjects, and the emotions they may awaken could be harder to process for viewers watching alone, after months of relative isolation and emotional depletion from the pandemic. Does the festival then have a duty of care towards the viewers even if they’re not in a festival venue? Beyond clear content warnings and opportunities for discussion, it seemed particularly difficult to figure out how to extend an ethics of care into the domestic spaces where the festival was streamed.

Powerlessness, anger and frustration are common emotions when watching distant suffering, a phenomenon widely studied by anthropologists. Activist film festivals try to shift those emotions towards engagement and empowerment, by emphasizing resistance and showing clear options for action. While mostly symbolic when enacted by relatively privileged audiences, these actions serve to cleanse the conscience and postpone the crisis of powerlessness. I’m familiar with those feelings of personal inefficacy and those recuperative twists. In other words, I’m used to feeling bad about not doing enough to change the world, and trying to hold on to some hope that watching together can lead to acting together. But watching Purple Sea in an online festival gave me a new experience of failure: Not just failing to act, but failing to even witness.

I watched Purple Sea in my living room, while my flatmate cooked dinner in the kitchen, the dog fussed, the laundry hung by the radiator, the carpet needed hoovering, the shelf needed dusting, work needed to be attended to, an entirely mundane mess extended out past the border of the screen. The minutiae of all this, while unimportant in itself, made my attention to the film something optional, that needed to be actively produced, and therefore something I could fail at. Failing to commit to witnessing was an ethical failure, a dereliction of my part of the deal with a film that opened itself up so generously.

Writing about film and video as testimonial encounters, Leshu Torchin says:

A constellation of factors contributes to the efficacy of a testimony. Rhetorical and iconographic strategies supply interpretive grids to make distant suffering a cause for concern, compassion, outrage, and solidarity. Practice, too, matters, as activities associated with distribution and exhibition can help channel the sentiment into action. It is as much about the testimonial encounter as the testimony itself. (Torchin 2012)

If Purple Sea’s formal strategies offered an embodied route towards a subjective understanding of a specific tragedy within the general violence of borders, and the spectator also starts out from a material situation, then the testimonial encounter in this case poses a problem of how to move from one embodied position to another in order to witness as required. Without wanting to go all 1970s theory on this, there is something in the claim that the classic cinematic apparatus works as a machine for attention and subjectivation, removing distractions and encouraging the spectator to move beyond their body. More importantly, the cinema screening (and especially the festival screening) is a social situation and this sociality binds us into a tacit pact to attention, bearing the responsibility of witnessing as a collective. As Torchin writes,

witnessing publics are not an enduring, eternal, or general formation, but temporary and contingent collectives hailed through address and encouraged into an active engagement and responsibility with what they see. (Torchin, Creating the Witness, 2012, p. 14)

The viewer can be hailed and encouraged, but ultimately they need to make an active choice to open themselves up, offer themselves to the testimonial encounter. This is what I am failing to do while watching at home, simply because it is more difficult, it demands more from me. First of all, it brings to the surface the incommensurability of the experiences. I am safe on firm land, looking at the cobwebs on the ceiling; how can I also be off the shore of Lesbos, treading water? It is an impossible identification which jars with the perceptual invitation to immersion through the immediacy of the footage. This is no phantom ride.

In her video, McGoff notes that while watching the film, “it struck me that I couldn’t really leave the space where I viewed it”. This living space, which during the pandemic has also been the space of work, leisure, and media use, becomes what she calls a “contextual monoculture”. Lacking the diversity of audiences and contexts that different spaces create, she worries that the dispersion of film viewing into individual encounters threatens the survival of film festivals and other forms of resistance to the culture industries’ flattening of experience. I think festivals will be fine for a wee while longer, but some thought must be given to their ritual function in preparing audiences for a demanding encounter. There is a long stretch to go from the mundane familiarity of the living room or the laptop screen to the openness to an experience that is radically outside ourselves (like any perspective on the world will be). After a year or two of gratefully accepted sameness and avoidance in the midst of disaster, some of us may need some coaxing into responsibility.