I have had occasion lately to reflect on the idea of the theatre’s “fourth wall” and on how this concept might be applied to film, to video games, and to media of the monitor generally, so last Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc film, Simone Bitton’s Wall, was particularly timely for me. The film takes for its subject the system of walls that Israel is building to separate Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories, and it uses at least two techniques to make the fourth wall of the screen function analogously to the physical wall that it is representing.
The first technique that Bitton employs is to conduct all the interviews with Palestinians offscreen. While the screen is displaying some aspect of the wall’s construction or function, Bitton’s voice and the voices of those she is interviewing remain invisible and disembodied, seeming to come from behind the camera somewhere, from behind the fourth wall that marks the limit of its view. Palestinians do appear in the film, but almost always from a distance, never intimately. When they speak, they are always voices only, as if the film’s audience is hearing them from behind the physical wall in the same way that an Israeli man describes being able to hear but not see a Palestinian neighbour on the opposite side of the barrier that separates their communities.
Bitton’s second technique is to keep the camera frequently immobile. Many of the film’s scenes are shot from an entirely static perspective. The camera does not pan. It does not tilt. It does not zoom. If movement is required, the scene merely cuts from one static shot to another. There may be activity within each shot, as people go about their lives in relation to the wall, but the position of the camera, and therefore of the viewer also, often remains fixed, as though it has been immobilized. These shots produce a sense of entrapment and enclosure. The desire of the viewers to move their gaze from one object to another, the desire that it is film’s function to satisfy, is thwarted continually. The gaze of the viewers is contained in the same way that the Palestinians have become contained, unable even to visit the neighbours they once knew and the land they still own.
Both of these techniques manipulate the position of the film’s viewers by manipulating the fourth wall of the screen, not by breaking it, but be drawing repeated attention to it and then pointedly refusing to break it. In so doing, they allow the fourth wall to function metaphorically for the physical walls in Palestine, but they also comment more broadly on the way that the fourth wall of the screen constrains viewers of film in every case, constrains them not only to see what it does portray but also not to see what it can not or will not portray, raising the question, I think, of the extent to which film may actually immobilize and silence us as viewers, trapping us within its four walls.