This is a film about the power of the gaze and the expectations of others in the realm of the visual. Told from the perspective of those who fail to fit in, four women of different ages and provenance show the impact it has on their perception of themselves. It also conveys an important political message: tolerance is the wrong antidote altogether.
The director Niki Padidar was born in Tehran, Iran. She studied at the New School University in New York and the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and obtained her master’s degree at the UvA. Her debut documentary Ninnoc won several international prizes, including at IDFA and Berlinale. All You See is her second film premiered at, and the opening film of, IDFA this year. She left Iran when she was seven years old, and this film is firmly embedded in her experience. She is the one asking questions and doesn’t directly appear in the film, yet her memories often mix with those of the protagonists. This detail cleverly underlies the curious fact that even if these memories are common to all of us who have ever found ourselves in places where we did not belong, the fact that they are shared doesn’t make them any less painful. Take, for example, the event the director remembers from an airport. After her bag was checked for explosives, the man who checked her bag insisted on asking her where she was from until she said Iran. And then he asked, Where is your burka? In one moment, in her own words, «you go from being a woman, director, educated, funny, to being reduced to Where is your burka.»
The practice of looking
As a society, we got used to thinking about this as a matter of stereotypes and prejudice. So, to overcome this, we developed the demand for tolerance. Which, of course, made the problem even more acute. There is nothing worse than being tolerated, we learn from the protagonists who explain how painful it is for them as people keep asking them if they are ok, if they need help, speaking louder, and pronouncing each syllable separately whenever talking with them. All this to show tolerance.
Instead, Padidar analyzed the powerful mechanism underlying this: the practice of looking. We perform the practice of looking to make sense of the world around us continuously in our everyday lives. We see in a process of observing and recognizing, and we intentionally look to actively make meaning. To look is an act of choice, a practice much like speaking or writing. It is used to communicate, influence, and be influenced, and it involves power relationships. Historically, speaking and writing have been subjects of exploration while looking was considered as somehow «natural.» Only recently, we became aware of the power of the gaze and, in the broader meaning, of the awareness and perception of other individuals as well as oneself. Today, the use of social media is mostly dedicated to exploring the power of the gaze. It spans between two extremes: the modest ambition of the great majority of social media users to be able to better adjust to the gaze and the expectations of others on the one hand, and the paradoxical ideal of the influencer-type to please the majority and be unique at the same time on the other.
We perform the practice of looking to make sense of the world around us continuously in our everyday lives.
All You See has put into the spotlight those who do not fit – the immigrants, people on the move, and those who stand out despite all their efforts due to a single trait. It might be the skin colour, as with Khadija, originally from Somalia, who has to answer regularly, every summer for 27 years, whether she gets tan in the sun. But it might just as well be the warmer clothes that distinguish Sophia, who has just come over from the UK, from other children in the kindergarten who wear lighter clothes. Another protagonist, Hanna from Ukraine, watches cartoons and films to learn how to blend. Diversity and ambiguity are what make this intimate narrative particularly special. While Hanna describes her position as an eternal tourist, her story about her canary brings to mind a cage. It raises the unavoidable question, is the state when they are constantly stared at itself not a sort of a cage too? Because apart from the unbearable pressure of being tolerated, the power of the gaze also impacts the way the protagonists perceive themselves, turning them into split personalities. Besides, all their attempts to fit in seem permanently doomed to fail. Like an eternal audition. And then, there is the silence. «You learn that if you want to participate joyfully, you should stay quiet about it», says Khadija.
Niki Padidar broke up this silence. She revealed the power of the gaze as the medium of power and pointed to the importance of the gaze as a social tie and a means to communicate and connect with others. The film protagonists are placed in uniform boxes with the front wall missing, resembling the stage and prison cell at the same time: empty rooms with no windows, with the walls, floor, and ceiling of the same industrial grey colour. Throughout the film, we watch how they gradually fill up these empty spaces with basic personal objects and hear them narrate their efforts to construct their social networks—simultaneously trying to connect with others and searching for a place where they will feel at home.