Still from The Task, 2017, 120 minutes. Courtesy of the True/False Film Festival.
At the risk of using a common critical canard: Leigh Ledare’s The Task is “a movie for anyone who” has ever been paralyzed with resentment when told they need to check their privilege—but then, maybe it’s for those whose disabusement has yet to begin. A former assistant to photographer Larry Clark, Ledare was introduced to his biggest audience in Nan Goldin’s 2009 photography show Ça Me Touche: his series Pretend You’re Actually Alive chronicled (or staged) dalliances between his middle-aged mother and much younger men, but also bound her to Ledare in oedipal nude portraits. In keeping with questions of appropriateness, boundary-crossing, and voyeurism, The Task opens with an ominous zoom-in on a microphone hanging over an empty conference room. The footage is culled from a three-day Group Relations Conference wherein twenty-eight participants, a handful of silent observers, and ten psychologists trained in the Tavistock Method (an intensive role-playing model developed in the 1940s by British psychoanalyst Wilfred R. Bion) engage in psychodynamic group discussion, mindfulness, and analysis. The aim is to heighten awareness of group dynamics, as they relate to authority and the ability to stay on task.
What results is a two-hour glimpse of what happens when “people stop being polite and start getting real”—or at least, when they think they do. The film is at its most thrilling (and hardest to parse) when the participants are arguing, silencing, and overriding each other, then finding occasional rapprochement amid the humbling of egos. In one scene, a joke about the 2016 presidential election brings some much-needed levity before cascading into a bitter standoff about whether it’s okay to bring political beliefs into the room. These power struggles and belabored personal narratives become oppressive, the cross-talk inevitable; one thus-far reticent participant offers, “To be seen in this room is a crime, and to want to be seen is a greater crime.” Ledare’s film is a spectacle of micro-bias, tracing the creeping awareness that the person looking back in the mirror might bear little resemblance to how they conduct themselves around others. It’s impossible not to register the difference in enacted privilege between the old, straight, and white participants (who mostly expect to be heard and accommodated by default) versus those who have been pushed aside too often, or are unsure of why they signed up at all.
The obvious point of comparison is not Paul Haggis’s Crash or Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, but instead Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary’s The Work, a documentary about group therapy at Folsom Prison, where confessional sessions become crucibles of toxic masculinity, full-body exorcisms of pent-up rage. Nothing so cathartic happens in The Task, and it’s hard to tell whether time is pushed forward by events onscreen or pure montage. While one of the psychologists—referred to as “consultants”—notes that “the task is to examine one’s own behavior in the here and now,” the film shows how the Tavistock method makes that impossible. As the participants rehash their antagonisms (toward one another, the “intellectuals” in the room, or the conference itself), the editing maintains a silky hover, effectively bite-sizing their exhortations and disembodying the psych-world jargon from its human sources. The group tills for a common, amorphous, and maybe impossible goal until the final act, when the discussion circle is penetrated by the artist himself—an imposition that throws the consultants into a tantrum, some storming out, one claiming that his “balls” have been cut off. (It’s possible they’re acting out an endgame of the Tavistock approach—defaulting on authority so the participants can remove the group’s head to preserve its body.) From start to finish, Ledare stokes tensions between the performative and the vulnerable, but his authorial self-immolation feels too easy; even the audio is mixed to make his responses to these protestations inaudible. Perhaps by design, The Task is a claustrophobic muddle, a work that turns its back to the Freudian cliché of the breakthrough and toward a new, crowdsourced definition of shame. It provokes indictment and bridge-building alike, and its shootouts are luridly riveting—yet they add up to curiously less than you’d expect, which probably makes it a perfect film for the current moment.