Road Movie
By Sarah Eastman, MA Candidate Art History

Road Movie
Galerie SAW Gallery, Ottawa
14 November 2013 – 11 January 2014

Road Movie, Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky’s compelling documentary about Palestine and Israel, unfolds as a series of fraught road trips along the region’s segregated road systems.(1) Set up as a six-channel video installation at Galerie SAW Gallery, it is defined by the three large walls that bisect the main gallery space and act as video screens (Fig 1). Viewers first encounter a three-channel video projected onto the near side of the walls. Images of dirt roads, marketplaces, and security checkpoints are interspersed with clips of Palestinian taxi and ambulance drivers and other West Bank residents. Steps away on the other side of the walls is a second three-channel video with long clips of pristine highways and new settlements cut together with segments featuring settlers, activists, and Israeli residents. On both sides of the walls stark white text is used to narrate individual stories.

Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011. Six-channel video installation. Image courtesy of Galerie SAW Gallery, copyright Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky).

(fig. 1) Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011. Six-channel video installation. Image courtesy of Galerie SAW Gallery, copyright Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky).

Flanders and Sawatzky work together as the group Public Studio, creating films that push the limits of documentary by combining it with architectural forms.(2) In Road Movie the duo use the architectural structure of the walls to intervene in the gallery space. The barriers mirror the Israeli security fence that separates Israel from the West Bank, confronting viewers with the physical reality of power and restricted access. While bringing the security fence into the gallery could easily have become didactic and heavy handed, Flanders and Sawatzky’s decision to combine it with documentary has produced a nuanced installation. Displaying the videos on the walls draws attention to the meaning invested in and projected onto the security fence. The fence is not only a physical structure, but a sign of the heightened level of anxiety in Israel, the ongoing violent political struggle, and strict power and control, among other things. It is a structure with political and aesthetic resonance.(3) In the gallery the walls place viewers in an active role. In order to experience the film in its entirety, it is necessary to move throughout the space and around the walls. The security fence limits movement, but Flanders and Sawatzky’s replica encourages viewers to move between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Road Movie is the result of Flanders and Sawatzky’s yearlong stay in the West Bank where they interviewed men and women and filmed their travels on Israel’s segregated roads. Although the conflict in the region was not Flanders and Sawatzky’s main focus while filming, it is a pervasive undercurrent in their documentary. Their interviews with Palestinians reveal a profound sense of frustration with the banal violence of an ever present surveillance system. This is especially apparent when they speak about moving through checkpoints and the difficulty of traveling to Israel. “He said: It took me 25 minutes to drive to Bethlehem. Now it take an hour and a half.”(4) The Israeli interviewees speak about settlements in the West Bank, some for and some against. Among the settlers there is a sense of pride in what they have built, and a fear of change in the political situation. “He said: I understand they want a state. But it contradicts ours.”(5) Through their emphasis on personal perspectives and the landscape, Flanders and Sawatzky’s installation speaks to the everyday realities that define, and separate, the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.

A small, darkened room off the main gallery is overwhelmed by a cacophony of voices and sirens emanating from half a dozen megaphones suspended from the ceiling (Fig 2). The megaphones accentuate the human quality of the work. Though the room is filled with an unintelligible racket, approaching each megaphone produces a different experience. The noise fades into the background, allowing individual stories to be heard in a series of poignant encounters. Multiple voices make up the constant din of conflict, and Road Movie invites viewers to listen and experience a nuanced view of life on both sides of the wall.

Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011. Six-channel video installation. Image courtesy of Galerie SAW Gallery, copyright Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky).

(fig. 2) Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011. Six-channel video installation. Image courtesy of Galerie SAW Gallery, copyright Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzky).

Curator Jason St-Laurent selected Road Movie for Galerie SAW Gallery’s Art Star 5 Video Art Biennial, Witness and Testify. He proposes that the work touches on both aspects of the theme. During filming Flanders and Sawatzky acted as witnesses, recording what they saw. The installation is their testimony; a personal artistic response to their experiences.(6) Flanders and Sawatzky’s physical reference to the security wall and their focus on the land, and the road systems in particular, suggests their support for Palestinians in the West Bank. Indeed, Road Movie began as a documentation of the road systems for a friend writing an NGO report. Public Studio’s artistic practice is not just politically engaged, but inseparable from the political circumstances of its production.(7) While their views are evident, St-Laurent notes that one of the strengths of the installation is its collection of voices and perspectives: “We’re seeing the conflict in shades of grey. And that’s what I find is really phenomenal with this installation. Because I find that that’s always the best way to approach things, where you try to understand another person’s perspective.”(8)

By combining narrative film with architectural elements Flanders and Sawatzky have created a documentary that asks us not only to watch and listen, but to engage empathetically, and ultimately, to act as witnesses.


(1) Israel restricts access to certain highways in the West Bank and Israel to Israeli citizens and Palestinians with Israeli work permits. The vast majority of Palestinians must travel on separate roads and are subject to security checkpoints.

(2) Jason St-Laurent, interview with Sarah Eastman, personal interview, Ottawa, ON December 17, 2013.

(3) Road Movie is one of several works by Public Studio that touches on the intersection of aesthetics and politics. An important part of their practice is breaking down what they see as the artificial separation between the two. See Nives Hajdin, “Seeing the Unseen: An Interview with Public Studio,” C Magazine, 120 (Winter 2014), 18-27.

(4) Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011.

(5) Public Studio, Road Movie, 2011.

(6) Jason St-Laurent, interview.

(7) Hajdin, “Seeing the Unseen,” 26.

(8) Jason St-Laurent, interview