The Task will inevitably divide audiences. As it stands, it’s near the top of my ranking of this year’s True/False lineup, but many people walked out of the screening I attended, and I heard a lot of muttering on the way out afterward among those who stayed. This division is appropriate for a film designed to provoke both its subjects and its audience. Created and directed by multimedia artist Leigh Ledare, and originally shown only at the Art Institute in Chicago, The Task makes the most sense when viewed as a piece of contemporary art, or as a piece of anti-theater in the spirit of Peter Handke.
Ledare gathers a large, diverse group of people together in a room, along with four cameras and several silent “observers.” Ostensibly a part of a conference on workplace dynamics, this collective has been tasked with an objective. Several “consultants,” ostensibly experts, sit in the midst of the participants and attempt to guide the conversation. If all this sounds vague, well, it is. The objective of the sessions never becomes clear beyond the repeated mantra that the task is to explore each group member’s vulnerabilities in the here and now. The participants themselves seem unclear as to what they should be doing, to the extent that the conversation becomes dominated by repeated failed attempts to define the terms of debate. Ledare has learned well the lessons of Kafka, combining empty bureaucratic speech with deliberate opaqueness to foster a deep sense of unease and alienation.
And it works. Tears flow, harsh words are flung, alliances formed, broken, and reformed. It quickly becomes clear that the setup of the whole experiment has gotten under the participants’ skin, an irritant that won’t go away and that prevents thinking about anything else. Anytime the drama lags, or the participants seem to make progress toward working together, the consultants jump in to stir the pot, and the fleeting unity unravels. By the end, things have gotten so out of control that Ledare himself – who has occasionally observed from the sidelines – sits down in the circle of chairs, a move taken as an invasion by the participants, who nearly stage a rebellion.
What really makes the film tick is the camerawork and editing. By placing cameras on each of the walls (two facing each other on either axis), Ledare’s crew captures the proceedings in panopticonal glory. Frequently, when a character starts to speak, the film will cut away from their face to show the reactions of the other participants, from bemusement to anger. Far from a gimmick, this technique both mimics the breakdown of communication in the room – where participants constantly interrupt and yell over each other – and offers a reminder that communication is far from straightforward.
I understand why viewers of this film might experience the same emotions as the participants in the experiment, and throw their hands up in disgust or frustration. No narrative is on hand, no closure (scenes frequently end mid sentence), and no sympathetic characters. But for those, like me, who enjoy peering at closed systems under the microscope, even when the subjects squirm, The Task provides a lot of food for thought. Though the film largely avoids explicit political talk, contemporary events hover in the background. Whatever the timeliness of the film’s concerns, though, it also feels more broadly relevant to anyone involved, however lightly, in attempts at democratic government. Are optimistic political theorists right that liberal democratic society will remain stable through the creation of overlapping consensuses? Or is society constantly teetering on the verge of devolution into Hobbes’ “war of all against all”? Don’t watch The Task seeking a reassuring answer to this question; but, if you remain open to its aggressive questions, you might find yourself pondering solutions yourself.