A Microcosm by Necessity: "The Task"

A documentary that reflects our own shit back at us.

The Task (Leigh Ledare)

The geometry of groups trends towards the circular. The huddle, the group hug, the campfire, the cypher, the dance circle the sharing circle⁠—when we attempt to envision human beings coming together in an egalitarian way, the circle seems to be the shape we default to (as opposed to the pyramid, power’s preferred shape).

Artist/documentary filmmaker Leigh Ledare builds his film The Task out of a series of circles: a ring of cameras surrounding a spiral of white chairs that fill up a room inside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (with a group of silent observers encircling the spiral as an additional ring in the room). Circulating through those rings is a large group of subjects: 28 participants, three observers, three psychologists (or "consultants," as everyone in the film calls them), and the director himself. Filmed over the course of a three-day Group Relations Conference (which is centered around a social psychology method developed by the Tavistock Institute) in 2017, The Task follows this group as they wrestle with the mission they’ve been given by the conference: "to examine the here and now.”

Clocking in just under two hours, Ledare’s film is a fascinating examination of group dynamics and people’s capacity to project their anxieties and biases on others. Watching The Task is like seeing social media stripped of its technological components and reduced to its barest form: an arena where humans trying to curry favor and cement their power positions by playing the victim, attacking someone else for what they represent, or retreating into conspiratorial brooding.

The Task (Leigh Ledare)

“The more time goes on, the more and more confused that I get,” one of the participants says later in the film. It’s a sentiment that viewers can sympathize with— Ledare offers very little context for what you’re seeing. When The Task begins, the group has already met before and established dynamics that we’re not initially privy to. We enter the scene with them talking about missing members, engaged in a passionate conversation over people we don’t know at all. We are not given any kind of formal introduction to anyone on screen, nor are we explicitly told which of these people is a “consultant” and which is a participant. This last point is particularly interesting because a running thread throughout The Task is the group’s discomfort with the authority of the consultants, so we see them interrogate the motivations behind an authority that’s opaque to the viewer but physically present among them.

Ledare’s camera crew films the proceedings in a tight, almost-claustrophobic framing: lots of over the shoulder shots and close-ups that create the impression that you’re in the room, hunched over a white chair with the rest of them. The group itself, as “a microcosm by necessity,” is fairly diverse: there’s a broad range of ages, races, and body types crammed together in that space. Only a handful of people reveal their names and background (there’s a lawyer, a cop, and a homeless man). We’re not even particularly sure how many people are in the room from scene to scene: new people show up while other participants vanish, making it hard to track the composition of the group over the course of the film. The Task is broken up into seven chapters, and it’s unclear just how much downtime there is between each section—sometimes it feels like a direct continuation of the last conversation, other times it feels like an entire day has passed.

The lack of context is deliberate: it puts the viewer in a similar position to the participants themselves, who seem to be just as in the dark about what they’re supposed to be doing as we are. Without any nuance or context to go off of, many of their interactions boil down to them projecting onto each other based on the group or type of person they seem to represent. What makes all this projecting fascinating is how self-aware everyone in the room is about it. The Task throws ice cold water on the idea that a lack of empathy stems from a lack of self-awareness. These are people who readily own up to being neurotic, to being biased, to knowing exactly how unfair they’re being, and yet they do it anyway.

“My image is that, like an idiot savant, this group has spread shit on every reflective surface it comes across,” one of the consultants says at one point, calling out the group’s uncanny ability to keep getting side-tracked on personal grievances, conspiracies, and arguing over petty bullshit whenever they’re on the verge of exploring more vulnerable and intimate subjects. The group is also obsessed with hierarchy: who sits where, who speaks for who, should there be a leader or not become issues they obsess over. And the presence of the filmmaker and the camera crew themselves becomes a recurring sticking point, as some of the group argues that they should be removed from the room because the cameras are keeping people from saying uncomfortable things they don’t want immortalized on film.

As interesting and tense as the conversations in The Task are, the crosstalk of body languages on display is just as fascinating. The cameras frequently cut away from speakers to let us take in the reactions in the rooms: the eye-rolling, grimaces, nods, and looks of sheer disbelief that ripple across the spiral (one vocal participant, a recovering addict with a ponytail, likes to do weird Tai Chi hand gestures across his chest when he’s not talking). Anyone who’s struggled to get a word in during a group conversation can feel sympathy pangs watching some of the quieter members visibly struggle to speak up and get drowned out by other people. Ledare’s camera crew gives us a glimpse of all the non-verbal cues people use to distract each other, to usurp conversations, and to signal their displeasure when they can’t say it out loud.

“We’re building a bridge that’s not finished yet,” Ledare himself says later in the film, quoting one of the consultants after the boundaries between filmmakers and subjects gets breached. Ledare’s vocal presence in the group throws the delicate balance of the spiral into chaos. The mistrust of authority and hierarchy that runs throughout the film (“You can’t be neutral and build a pyramid,” one participant asserts) boils over to a flash point when the “boss” of the film becomes a part of the spiral. The building of the bridge stalls as the circles in the room get smaller and more interlinked and the communication between them breaks down in acrimony and resentment.

The Task opens and closes with a movement-based bookend: the side-to-side hobbled gait of one of the participants, an older man who teeters into the empty room at the beginning of the film and seesaws away in protest at the end. Whether the bridge gets “finished” at the end of the conference weekend is left unaddressed and unknown. We leave the group as we entered it: a voyeur without context, like someone trying to make sense of a Twitter flame war they’ve just walked blindly into. The snake keeps eating its tail, and we keep watching.

Leigh Ledare’s The Task is available to view here.

The Task (Leigh Ledare)

Chris Gaines Fact #8

Chris Gaines is the only person in both the United States and Australia who is legally barred from actively participating in any kind of therapy, both solo or group-based. The unusual court ruling (supported by an unanimous Supreme Court decision) was made in 2007 after Gaines’ therapist sued the singer for “destroying my mind with psychic horrors and trauma that no human being should ever have to hear.” The courts agreed that Gaines “airing his shit out” constituted a public health hazard on a “frankly Lovecraftian scale.”

-Paul Simonson, “The Dark Side of Rock & Roll Therapy”

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