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Six Warnings for Documentary Filmmakers

Six Warnings for Documentary Filmmakers

Judging from the comments and Facebook posts in reply to Jill Godmilow’s recently published editorial on “The Act of Killing,” there are a lot of people–documentary filmmakers and fans–who took issue with the Oscar-nominated nonfiction director’s response to the film. There has also been a strangely age-ist reaction–MovieCityNews touted “At 70, Doc-Maker Jill Godmilow Prescribes A 3,800-Word Warning For 39-Year-Old Joshua Oppenheimer”–as if the critique has something to do with Godmilow being some old fuddy-duddy filmmaker who is out of touch with formalist documentary cinema. 

This, of course, is far from the truth, and for those who don’t know Godmilow’s work, she’s extremely cognizant of the ways that documentaries shape reality, and her work addresses these very issues head on. She’s not coming from some place of stodgy, conservative filmmaking. Whether her 1984 film “Far from Poland” or her 1998 film, “What Farocki Taught,” Godmilow’s docs are just as radical in form as anything contemporary filmmakers are making. So with that out of the way, now let’s consider Godmillow’s issues, which should be considered constructive areas for debate, and not, as some may have felt, cheap jabs. (Full disclosure: I helped Godmilow place the piece in Indiewire.)

Before she even gets to her six warnings, she offers this useful series of questions, which all doc filmmakers should consider:

“How is the audience constructed by the film – that is, to whom is the film addressed – and how?  What generalizations are made about the represented…and about us/them differences? What information is privileged or repressed? What arguments are made? Is the experience of the film useful? How are we changed by it?”

I can’t imagine anyone in the documentary world would take issue with these queries. Documentary filmmakers, in their depictions of real people, need to be sensitive and responsible, after all. 

I will reproduce the six warnings below because I think they are worth repeating:

1. Don’t Make History Without Facts

2. Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People By Other Little Brown People

3. Be Fair to Your Social Actors

4. Avoid Building a Film on the Bedrock of Pornography

5. Don’t Compromise Your Audience

6. Avoid Using Documentary For Confessions And/Or Primal Therapy

Now say what you will about how this list may or may not apply to “The Act of Killing.” And sure, #4 may be a bit sensationalistic. But I think these are all worthy points to consider. Documentary filmmakers may want to tease out some of these issues, interrogate them and explore them, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that we shouldn’t engage with t.

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Beeb man

It's not ageist to point out that of the film's three most vocal critics, Jill Godmilow is 70, Nick Fraser is 66, and Jennifer Merin is 60+. Coincidence?

David Poland

Taken completely out of context of the politically correct, finger-wagging, "get off of my idea of documentary" attack on The Act of Killing, the 6 "warnings" are not at all offensive and, perhaps helpful.

And of course, these "warnings" demand context. That is where things get ugly.

But that is not what indiewire published.

I understand what Ray Pride was intending when he wrote that headline. But I will note, this is some of the same claptrap that's been thrown at Errol Morris… and he is really, really OLD. ( I only say that because Errol is one of the youngest people of a certain age I know and upon hearing that, he would laugh before hitting me over the head with some well chosen verbiage.)



The field needs this debate, regardless of whether you agree with her or Fraser et al. Glad you're pushing this conversation forward. Not choosing sides, but jeesh, it's one of the only arguments worth having in the misasma of crap discussion that passes for dialogue in the doc world.

bill stamets

as a fan of thinking, in theory at least, I am unsure what rhetorical use there is in prescribing the act of thinking twice without saying where said thinking ought to lead :

"2. Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People By Other Little Brown People”

does white-on-brown, yellow-on-black, red-on-yellow, brown-on-black or white-on-white killing call for half as many acts of thinking by documentary-makers?


If we stop calling The Act of Killing a documentary, what happens to all of these arguments? What if the aim of the film is not to teach a history lesson, but to teach a lesson about the dissonance of human psychology and behavior? What if the goal is not to call out criminals and injustice but to show what humans allow themselves to do in service of authority, greed, and survival?

All of the complaints and finger-wagging I've read in objection to this film are attempting to put a frame around it that it simply does not fit in.

Don't impose your own idea of what this film should do or be. Trust the filmmaker's vision and allow them to reveal what it is they are trying to.

The Dog

How silly. I teach Godmillow's films and have put her writing on required reading lists. I am also very much of her generation. Yet I disagree with her on this one. And I am especially suspicious of "rules" for documentary filmmakers. The material you film makes the rules. That is what documentary is all about.

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