April 6th, 2017
by Philipp Kanske
The “be a better being” forum in November 2016 screened a short film that turned out to be perceived very differently by different visitors. It was a controversial choice and one I am more than happy to explain. The film shows people, all of them in simple portrait shots, which the film moves through very slowly. This means the viewer is left with enough time to thoroughly watch each person. Herein precisely lies the “problem”, because everyone we see has suffered an accident or a serious illness that disfigured their face.
It is not easy to look at the people, and while you watch, the title of the film seems to be mercilessly filled with meaning while also changing meaning: “When I stop looking” (Todd Herman, USA 2013). Is it a question or a challenge? A fragment, meant to be continued “… I will feel relieved/guilty/ashamed”? Or a descriptive statement, presuming everyone WILL stop looking at some point?
If you keep looking instead of looking away, you embark on a journey. With a running time of 15 min, the film allows you to walk through surprising emotional sceneries within yourself. Disgust and immediate guilt about feeling disgust, a diffuse sense of fear, anger at whoever made you watch this. At the start of the film, all the people portrayed in the film have their eyes closed, then about a third of the way through the film, they open their eyes and offer you a connection. At that point, you suddenly realize that the dominating emotion is actually fear of being in that person’s shoes, of being hit by the same catastrophe, and that opens up a new world of connecting back. It makes room for compassion, for concern and kindness.
Here the film helps further by showing some of the protagonists together with a loved one, a person who caresses their face, for instance. Everything is shown in slow motion, which might seem cruel at first, but is in fact necessary to allow the viewer’s emotions to follow. Exactly for that reason, I would suggest watching the film again if you are still on that journey, because no, it is not a “freak show”, but a chance to connect.
Why show this film at a forum focusing on “be a better being”? In contrast to most other films, “When I stop looking” does not show how to live better, nor does it parody or question the optimization culture or the dream about a better future. It offers the viewer a very concrete, small step for changing him- or herself. As such, the film becomes an allegory of how we interact with the grievances of the world around us – with closed eyes, blinders on, or openly. When do you stop looking?
Philipp Kanske is a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. He is a psychologist and psychotherapist, mainly interested in emotion, emotion regulation, and emotion sharing and understanding, but also in the psychopathology and plasticity of emotion through training such as meditation. His work has been acknowledged with several awards, including the Otto Hahn Medal of the Max Planck Society, Young Investigator Awards of the European Brain and Behavior Society and others.