Sometimes you can feel a work of art asking itself what it is, moving speculatively in one direction and then another as it searches for its own identity. The subjects of Leigh Ledare’s documentary The Task are wondering the same thing. Condensed from a three-day “conference” that plays like an extended group therapy session, The Task, which made its theatrical debut at the True/False Film Festival in early March, places two dozen or so men and women in a blank white space outfitted with cameras and microphones, and charges them with figuring out why they’re there. It’s like an escape room, except unlocking the door leads you inward rather than out.
The Task’s setup is a modified version of the Tavistock method, a process of studying group dynamics that is often used to train psychotherapists, and many of the movie’s participants are veterans of previous conferences. But even they seem wrong-footed by the changes Ledare, a multimedia artist making his feature-film debut, has made to the usual process.
The movie doesn’t reveal what those modifications are, and it further wrong-foots the audience by dropping us into the conference on Day 2, when the group has already begun to turn inward and dissect its own evolving dynamics—or, as one participant puts it, the group’s penchant for “absolving itself of its own atrocities.” The sections that follow, each set off by a title card—including successive segments called “Inmates” and “Intimates”—proceed in chronological order from Day 1 on, or at least so Ledare said in a post-premiere Skype session, but they’ve been radically pared down, stripped of context so the group’s interpersonal dynamics are made abstract. Sometimes, as when questions of race and gender privilege come to the fore, what remains is familiar. Other dynamics are more particular to the group, as when a speaker admonishes interruptions with a curt “Crosstalk!”
The conference’s participants are augmented by nearly a dozen counselors with degrees in social work, the only people who are identified by their full names in The Task’s credits. (The group’s nondiplomaed members are listed solely as a four-by-seven grid of first and last initials.) But they’re not there to facilitate so much as to provoke, or at least it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. When the group’s members seek clarification on what exactly it is they’re meant to be doing, a counselor offers only the tautological guidance that their task is “to examine your behavior in the here and now.” No wonder one participant laments that “The more this goes on, the more and more confused I get.”
That confusion was echoed by The Task’s audience, which grew audibly restless during one especially opaque section midway through. But instead of distracting from the film, the crowd’s restlessness enhanced it. For a thrilling extended moment, it felt as if the film’s confrontations might spill off the screen and into the room. Ledare apparently had to be persuaded by True/False’s programmers that The Task could work outside of its original exhibition context. (It was originally presented in November as the centerpiece of a larger exhibition called The Plot at the Art Institute of Chicago.) It not only works; it thrives. It embodies filmmaker Edgar Morin’s idea of cinéma vérité, which, contrary to its use as a synonym for the ideal of fly on the wall–style “direct cinema,” strove to provoke situations in front of the camera rather than passively capturing them. What results is, as philosopher and film theorist Gilles Deleuze put it, not “a cinema of truth, but the truth of cinema.” In a way, it’s an idea that prefigures the revealing contrivances of reality television. You can’t film what people are like without cameras around, but how they behave in the presence of cameras still speaks volumes.
The Task’s setup makes it impossible for the group’s members to play to the cameras but also impossible to escape them. They’re literally surrounded, with cameras positioned all around the room, one shot often taking in the setup for another. The conference’s format naturally privileges the person who has the floor, especially if they’re closer to the center of the spiral in which the participants are arranged. Eventually the members decided that the innermost chair functions as the “power seat.” But some of the movie’s most revealing moments, its funniest and its most disquieting, come when the film cuts away to reveal how the way the members conduct themselves in silence can also be a bid for power. Some roll their eyes theatrically and make a show of their disengagement. Others tear up or visibly tense. One member, a ponytailed man who identifies himself as a former addict, goes into a series of full body contortions, pulling his hands across his chest as if he’s trying to draw out evil spirits—or simply to draw attention away from the woman who’s talking at the time. (A male participant who is rarely seen speaking shows up for one session in a T-shirt reading, “I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining how I’m right.”) It’s easy to equate having the mic with being in control, but except for one red-faced man and an elegantly dressed woman, the consultants rarely speak, even when the group’s members prod them to. There is power in their silence.
Watching The Task is an exercise in frustration, as exhaustive dissections of process turn inward and eventually feast on themselves. (I was accompanied by a friend who teaches at a university, and as the lights came up, she turned to me and said, “You just got me to watch a movie about a faculty meeting.”) But eventually you realize the movie is studying you as well, or allowing you to study yourself. It’s not hard to imagine another set of cameras at the back of the theater, and another audience beyond that, nodding thoughtfully as they study the way you shift in your seat, jotting down the discussions you have after the fact. It’s often said that movies aren’t complete until they’re watched, but The Task still doesn’t feel like it’s over. The task is to discover what The Task is, and I’m still figuring it out.