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Old City from the Mount of the Olives, via Wiki­media Commons

This fall, I had a crazy idea. I approached the Philos Project — the non­profit that just sent its third group of Hillsdale stu­dents to Israel — and gave them a pro­posal. If Philos paid my travel expenses, I would explore Israel with this year’s group from Hillsdale and film them a pro­mo­tional video. They said yes, and we signed a con­tract within the month.

At first, the video was simply a way to get me to the land of the Bible, but once I began filling up an SD card with footage of Tel-Aviv at sunrise, I realized that filming in Israel would be a gift in itself. It resolved for me, to a large extent, the tension that every artist feels between their art and their life. Does the art serve life, or does the life serve art?

Before we left, I was worried that filming would be a dis­traction. I had thought that while my friends wan­dered in rev­erence through the gardens, churches, and ruins, I would fiddle with my camera and walk briskly between cin­e­matic vantage points, observing and yet not expe­ri­encing. This has been my predicament before. I often film SAB events as part of my job in the mar­keting department, and during some of them, like Cen­tral­hal­la­palooza, I find myself wishing that I could set the camera down and join the crowd as a par­tic­ipant rather than an observer. The camera can seem like a wall.

The first day in Israel, I found this to be true. I know what kinds of shots are useful when editing this type of video: a wide shot of the building, a slow-motion over-the-shoulder walking shot, a close-up of a smiling face. These com­prised my mental check-list for each location, and by that afternoon, it became rote. I was filming because I was on con­tract, not because I was moved by the images before my eyes.

Werner Herzog, a renowned doc­u­mentary film­maker, com­pares this sort of work to garbage col­lecting. Turn on the camera, set focus, press record, then collect the church, toss the people into the bag. Herzog believes that film­makers ought to aspire to more: “We are not garbage col­lectors,” he says. “We are thieves.”  

The best ads, like the best films, are not piles of garbage but treasure stolen from beau­tiful and fright­ening places. I was in a beau­tiful and fright­ening place, yet I was col­lecting mundane footage.

What changed that week was not really the type of shots I was filming, but the attitude I had toward my camera. It can be a wall, but it can also be a window. Instead of assem­bling a mental check-list for each location, I decided that I would let my eye wander until I found an image that moved me, then film it. I was com­pelled by the rhythm of the Mediter­ranean crashing around a woman’s ankles, the slow movement of a hand touching the Gaza border wall, the swirling of a flock of birds on the Galilee. My friends around me were having mean­ingful expe­ri­ences, and through filming them, I was able to honor their expe­rience. I was no longer filming because I was on con­tract, I was filming because I was an artist.

As we traveled Israel, I con­tinued to think about how I could honor the loca­tions, my friends, and Israel with my footage. To relieve the tension between art and life, I embraced art as a mode of expe­ri­encing life. I’m con­vinced that a mean­ingful expe­rience requires appre­hension and then par­tic­i­pation. It’s not merely enough to see or hear some­thing; we then must act, even in a small way, like starting a con­ver­sation the next day, writing down our thoughts, or, in my case, turning on my camera, setting focus, and stealing Israel.

 

Mr. Ryd is a junior studying English.