Graeme Ross, a friend of mine from soccer, dropped by on Wednesday afternoon to return a film that he had borrowed from me. We had also arranged to watch a documentary over coffee while he was there, and we settled on James Longley’s Gaza Strip. As we were watching, people were occasionally coming and going, patients of the physiotherapy and osteopathy practise that my mother-in-law runs out of our home. One gentleman arrived a little early to pick up his wife, so he came to watch the film with us for ten minutes or so, and I was interested to see how his mere presence changed the viewing experience for me.
Prior to this gentleman’s arrival, I was focused mostly on Longley’s film, which is good but not terribly remarkable. It uses some interesting editing techniques, including one sequence of high speed still shots interspersed with longer freeze frames, all depicting a Gaza city at night, but these experimental elements are largely outweighed by what is otherwise very conventional cinematography. At times, it conveys surprisingly intimate moments, particularly with one young man, whose narrative forms a loose structure for the documentary, but I felt that its total effect was too loose, episodic, unfocussed, and disunified. As I said, it was good, but not very remarkable.
The moment that our unexpected visitor arrived, however, I began to experience the film very differently. Rather than being concerned primarily with the film itself, with its subject and technique and politics, I found myself attending also to the film as the element through which this man was first seeing me and coming to know me. What was he was thinking as he was sitting there with us? Was he wondering why two grown adults were sitting around watching a documentary in the middle of a weekday afternoon? Was he evaluating the politics of people who would watch a film that advocates so strongly for the Palestinian cause? How, in short, was the film introducing us to him?
Suddenly, I realized how uncommon this kind of experience is. Culturally speaking, we are not often confronted by another person first in the context of viewing a film. We are frequently in the position of watching a film with strangers in the setting of the theatre, of course, but we are not usually confronted by these people. They exist for us, and they help form our film experience, but we do not often recognize them in their particularity, and certainly not in a situation where the film has been selected by us in a way that it has not been by them, in a situation where the film might be understood to be representative of us in some way.
When we do watch film in a context that confronts us with others, we almost always ensure that it is in an intimate setting, with those we already know, where even the choice of film is most often made between us. The film experience on these occasions is something that we construct among us. It is not that we are able to determine all of the factors in this experience, but that we actively participate with each other in producing the event of the viewing, much in the way that Graeme and I arranged to meet together, chose the film together, and sat down to watch it as an event in our relationship.
When our visitor arrived, however, the viewing experience became radically altered. Now, rather than an event taking place in an already existing relationship, it became the moment through which a relationship was begun, and a moment that was produced far more by us than by him, so that his introduction to us was almost entirely restricted to that of observation. He was not introduced to us directly, where we might interact with him. He was introduced merely to our choice of film, where he could only observe this choice and us through it, without over really entering into it.
I am uncertain what to make of this kind of interaction, though I think that it must occur in less obvious ways in almost every communal viewing of a film. It is causing me to examine more closely the realtional elements that go into screening a film as factors in responding to film and to others in the context of a film viewing. I have not yet thought very far through these ideas, and I am uncertain exactky how to procede with them, so I would appreciate any thoughts that others might be able to offer me.