40 Strangers Meet in a Deeply Uncomfortable Documentary

Group members participating in the central discussion of The Task (image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

Artist Leigh Ledare creates images that seem aware of the viewer, a meta version of portraits whose eyes are drawn to appear to follow you. In his new film The Task, his subjects are not only aware of their participation in an art project, but openly speak about it. And the entire documentary consists of them sitting in a room together, talking. Scenes open and close abruptly in the middle of conversations, a suggestion of endlessness which encourages the audience to continue discussing the things the characters do. As a result, the viewer becomes an unwitting, even unwilling extension of the work. The movie is a tesseract made of mirrors, implicating and absorbing all who see it, erasing the boundaries between viewer, artist, and subject.

The Task was originally the centerpiece of The PlotLedare’s multimedia exhibition about modern social relations which ran at the Art Institute of Chicago in late 2017. It was presented at the True/False Film Festival and will presumably run in theaters stripped of any context provided by the original installation. There is no explanation of what is going on — not even of what the titular “task” is, precisely. For two hours, a group of around 40 people engage in an uninterrupted conversation. They do not build to any point or come to any solid agreement on any topic. They repeatedly bring to the fore questions about how their personal identities — in terms of gender, age, race, profession, sexuality, etc. — shape their perceptions of the situation and one another. Gradually, it becomes clear that the discussion is not directed by any objective, but rather that the discussion itself is the objective. The group members are subsumed in pure dialectic.

(image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

But bereft of a goal (if they were given one, it seems they’ve long since forgotten it), the exchanges revert to a circular pattern. The group members seem to have already covered the points they make in the film before; we’re only seeing them go through these ideas for who knows what time. After all, the film opens on their third day meeting together. There are vague references to people who have left the group, and some of the members present are trained facilitators rather than civilians, but it’s difficult to ascertain who is who. Outside research reveals that the setup is structured around the Tavistock model of group therapy, wherein participants help one another analyze themselves. (Ledare and his collaborators selected a group representing a broad range of ages and races.) But there is no self-actualization to be seen. Everyone is speaking across one another’s points, wanting to make their own statements in lieu of truly grappling with what anyone else says. It is a stark reminder of how, if pushed to open up intellectually, the average person can be maddeningly inarticulate. But why isn’t the method working?

(image courtesy True/False Film Festival)

The movie is not without form. While the cross-talk can seem sometimes purgatorial, there is a definite narrative shaped by the participants’ growing awareness of Ledare’s film crew in the room with them. Once they’ve finally exhausted all prospects of coming to an understanding through dialogue, they awaken to the possibility that the presence of the cameras may be ruining their attempts at communication by turning them into performers. It is here that the point clicks. What The Task presents to the viewer is not a debate that can be settled but a portrait of societal discourse at large, whether you consider it in terms of conversations across social media, the news, politics, or everyday life.

Once the group is openly hostile to the crew, Ledare lights the fuse on the powder keg by leaving his observer position and directly stepping into the circle of chairs. If there is a revelation in this experience for the participants, it is found here, when the “rules” of the game are openly broken and they can no longer make sense of the watcher-doer relationship. Many of them get up and leave. The viewer may not be so fortunate. Try to get on Facebook after seeing this film and feel confident in just how much sense you’re really making to anyone else.

The Task by Leigh Ledare screened at the True/False Film Festival (Columbia, Missouri) March 2–4. 

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