It takes some work to describe the premise, structure, and purpose of Leigh Ledare’s exasperating and wildly entertaining documentary, but the feeling of The Task is familiar. A conspicuously diverse group of 31 strangers sitting in white chairs arranged in a spiral are in the middle of a discussion, and nerves are raw. The viewer (partially accurately, it turns out) gets the sense that these people are gathered in some kind of therapeutic pursuit after the trauma of Donald Trump’s election. Some vague but intense debate about power and identity has become visceral very quickly, and it’s not long before one of the group’s many, many self-appointed voices of reason argues that the group is “absolving itself of its own atrocities.”
We’re off to the races, but what are these people talking about, and why is their language so violent? It takes some time for the group’s “task”— “to examine one’s behavior in the here and now”— to reveal itself. This clarification, though briefly revelatory, proves insufficient. Though the documentary’s “here and now” is America in 2017 in one sense, it more precisely turns out to be part of a series of sessions at a Group Relations Conference. The format, inspired by methods developed at London’s Tavistock Institute decades ago, is meant to encourage strategic planning and leadership development, and the task of the group is to examine how the group functions: how conscious and unconscious biases and assumptions contribute to the proceedings.
Paying witness to such an abstract project is remarkably similar to stepping into a tight-knit private Facebook group in the middle of a moderation scandal, where dozens of strangers claiming a common interest find themselves hopelessly at odds and quick to resort to bruising recriminations that pinball in wild directions. Ledare’s film, in kind, is a thrilling but queasy-making social experiment. One of the thorny strictures of the group is its intricate power structure. Three “consultants” (experienced group relations practitioners) attempt to guide group discussions and draw conspiratorial accusations, and much time is spent scrutinizing where individuals place themselves in the room. At the absurd comic height of The Task’s, a series of people remove one another from a perceived “seat of power.”
Though the group’s discussion is largely deep up the ontological ass of what the group means, The Task remains a bracingly relevant examination of contemporary social discourse. It is something like the terrifying funhouse mirror image of last year’s wrenchingly earnest documentary, The Work: Rather than working through their sense of victimhood, the individuals in The Task progressively reveal their oppressions and biases. This pageant of persecution is occasionally quite touching, until it is (repeatedly) hijacked by the group’s middle-aged white male membership. One, a peevish David Sedaris clone, buckles under scrutiny, while a second (who exhibits some of the most ostentatious, seemingly unconscious body language I’ve ever seen a fully seated person exhibit) is emboldened by the opportunity to share his woes. The question of what will become of a world where even the most privileged individuals perceive themselves as an embattled minority looms large. What can be done about it is another matter entirely.
Inevitably, Donald Trump works his way into the film, but the group is right to wonder if the more pressing evil is Ledare himself. The director shoots these sessions with six cameras and numerous overhead microphones, and the act of recording (and the production of an edited work of art based on this footage) warrants scrutiny, but Ledare doesn’t stop there. One woman’s tearful speech is interrupted by a shrill, metallic dragging sound, and another discusses interactions she’s had with Ledare off set. Despite taking place in a single room over a few days, The Task is brilliantly edited and assembled: conversations either are or seem to be uncut, continuous debates that run upwards of 25 minutes, but Ledare’s mischievous assemblage blocks group members in alignments and oppositions that they aren’t aware of. Ultimately, the artist himself enters the fray, and it’s an invitation to debate that feels more like a transgression of power and a violation of trust.
The Task | Dir: Leigh Ledare | Dec 13 | Thu 7 pm | SPACE, 538 Congress St, Portland | $8 | www.space538.org