by Chandler Ryd | Hillsdale College
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.