Credit: Roco Films

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Catriona Mahmoud

Regarding the Pain of Others

2020 has been an unprecedented time for reflection and engagement with movements that aim to tackle structural inequality. Beliefs are simultaneously being developed and dismantled. In Great Britain for example, Black Lives Matter’s calls for immediate structural change coincided with a renewed seeking of value in the essential work of those considered to be on the frontline. Regrettably, both are arguably forgotten outside of the newscycle of a global crisis. Despite being filmed before our current climate of reflection and restructuring, an urge to bring awareness to the oppressed and broaden our understanding of sects has been explored in two of the summer’s festival favourites: Me and the Cult Leader, and The Viewing Booth. Both films feature a singular focus on subjects that hold beliefs drastically different to that of their documentarian. 

Premiering at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Atsushi Sakahara’s debut feature Aganai: Me and the Cult Leader, a Modern Report on the Banality of Evil, has a title that seems to definitively conclude that the subject of the film, Hiroshi Araki, is evil and should be perceived that way by the viewer. Me and the Cult Leader begins with a quote from the Japanese constitution, ‘The freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated’. Sakahara then delves into the psyche of an executive and PR representative of Aleph (formerly known as Aum Shinrikyo), the cult made famous for leading the Tokyo Sarin Gas terrorist attack in 1994. As Sakahara makes clear, the quote’s role is a reminder for viewers that, while actions can be made legal and illegal, thoughts should be decided with agency, and not on your behalf. 

Sakahara, who features throughout, is himself a victim of the attack who travels with Hiroshi across Japan. Sakahara’s incentive for this interaction is somewhat unclear. We can assume, from the references to trauma and PTSD, that he hopes to unpack and find some form of closure for the incident that has so clearly shaped his life until this point. What surprises Sakahara, Hiroshi and possibly even the viewer is the closely aligned upbringings of both subject and filmmaker. At points it can be fair to say that they develop some semblance of a friendship, despite one being the root cause of the other’s lifelong physical and mental health deterioration. 

The Viewing Booth similarly sees its subject and filmmaker develop a relationship, but one that is based on an attempt to calculate and understand one another’s differing perspectives. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz directs the revealing interaction between himself and Maia Levy, a young Israeli-American woman, as she watches footage produced by Jerusalem-based anti-occupation group B’Tselem. Alexandrowicz himself, also Israeli and ex-IDF, frequently prompts Maia to describe her often cynical and disengaged thoughts on watching Israeli soldiers brutally mistreat Palestinians, like a perverted, horror-show version of Gogglebox.

What links these films, other than their commentary on the relationship between filmmaker and subject, is the investigation into ways to dismantle deeply rooted beliefs within an audience or individual. These beliefs are often held so tightly that, despite data convergence making information readily available for access and consumption, individuals can find themselves maintaining personal opinion through only seeking information that complements their existing values. This cyclical method of feeding one’s own beliefs creates a systemic denial of concepts that could alter the personal perspectives of our subjects, trapping Maia and Hiroshi within their own Bourdieuian habitus. 

Sakahara and Alexandrowicz’s subjects hold beliefs that are likely contrary to the viewers of each respective film. As Alexandrowicz poignantly states to Maia, ‘I remember looking at you and thinking this is the person I want to make films for,’ expressing that he doesn’t see the point in making films about the Palestinian occupation for those who are already against it. Maia retorts by saying she’s ‘making active choices [when challenged about the way she views B’Tselem footage], if not what would I say? It wouldn’t be my opinion then’. While we see glimpses of Maia personally questioning her own belief system, she regularly falls back into seeking the safety of her familiar and predetermined gaze to justify any emotional reaction to what she’s seeing on screen. At one point she deflects by remarking on Alexandrowicz’s filmmaking tools and decisions, indicating that he is also making choices. She is under his gaze, and his decisions on her portrayal are beyond her jurisdiction. 

This challenge of control is also presented to Hiroshi. In a particularly moving scene, he silently cries as the film crew find themselves at the train station where he would visit his late grandmother as a young man. Here we’re presented with one of the first vulnerable and humanising instances of Hiroshi, who, until now, was merely the representative of a disgraced sect of Japanese society. Along with Maia’s observations on gaze, scenes such as these were chosen to be kept in both films, creating an unexpected multidimensional understanding that both these subjects are in fact ‘only human’, as Maia aptly mentions. As a viewer, we like to think we choose whether to empathise or not with a character. But these films successfully show that identification can be readily found outside our comfort zones, giving a new understanding of the role a documentary has in shaping opinion.

These documentaries are deeply confessional for both their subjects and filmmakers. They reflectively reveal, process, and attempt to heal by dismantling the belief systems of those involved in the filmmaking process and the audience watching this unfold. Each subject is forced to confront and regard the pain of others, and while Hiroshi and Maia may not directly be involved in their community or heritage’s infliction of this pain, we see emerging realisations of personal responsibility in each subject. The humanisation of these individuals is ultimately made possible through the integral moments of sincere emotional expression.

While this earnestness is invaluable to gain understanding of those with such potentially differing opinions to that of the viewer, unfortunately there are issues inherent to these methods. We face the Brechtian issue of performative response from each subject. On one hand Hiroshi is literally being interviewed as a PR representative of a disgraced organisation hoping to improve their public perception, and on the other Maia remarks upon being aware of the context of the film studio. This leaves it to the audience to optimistically trust the filmmakers to present an unbiased truth. However, they too are only human and choose to verbally challenge their subjects’ beliefs, satisfying for the viewer, but not necessarily leading to any conclusions of right and wrong. The subjects involved do certainly come out of each film with a more sympathetic understanding of others with different beliefs to themselves, but remain unable to admit any guilt or responsibility for the tragedies they’re associated with. 

While we don’t necessarily know what becomes of Hiroshi and Maia, we do know this experience will have made them question themselves, as well as gain perspective on the responsibility of the roles they play in others’ lives. This in effect will hopefully allow the viewer to reflect on their own approaches to the acceptance of changing one’s own mind, and thereby bringing a self-awareness that everything we do or believe can in turn have a cause and effect. 

The Viewing Booth is available to view via Open City Documentary Festival 2020. Find out more.

Aganai: Me and the Cult Leader, a Modern Report on the Banality of Evil does not have a set release, but keep an eye on this link for information.