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by Jill Godmilow
March 5, 2014 3:49 PM
67 Comments
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Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With 'The Act of Killing'

A musical sequence from "The Act of Killing." Drafthouse Films

Editor's note: The following editorial was submitted to Indiewire's editors by the author, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. While we have published many positive responses to "The Act of Killing" since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, we felt it was important to represent multiple perspectives on this film, which continues to generate much discussion.

In March 2013, I bought a ticket to a screening at the Museum of Modern Art.  There was a big buzz about a new film called “The Act of Killing” and I wanted to see it.

In the theater, first I was fascinated, then puzzled, then increasingly disturbed by the film’s shock therapy approach to the horrors of political life in Indonesia. After an hour, I walked out, stepping on the toes and handbags of mesmerized audience members. I walked not because talk of murders by murderers made me queasy. These stories, told by low-level assassins, employed during General Suharto’s 1965 coup to depose left-leaning President Sukarno and to destroy all his opponents, aren’t new.  (Estimates range from 500,000 to two million accused “communists” and ethnic Chinese were slaughtered.) I walked out because I was miserable in my viewer’s seat – shackled in the intolerable position the film suggested I should be comfortable in. I wasn’t.

Two months later, perplexed by the rave reviews trailing the film from festival to festival, I went to see it again when it opened in theaters. “The Act of Killing” now began with a new introduction by the filmmaker. Addressing the camera, Joshua Oppenheimer gives the audience permission to laugh when there is something funny. Why do we need his permission to laugh? Is he demanding that we feel comfortable watching boastful reconstructions of mass butchery by the death squads of Medan? What is he nervous about? Oppenheimer also reminds us that we are all capable of good and evil...that any among us could be tempted. Hmmm?

Since then, the raves, awards and prizes have continued. No critic seems to be examining – at least in print or on the net – what there is to learn from this “unruly documentary artivism”: the new moniker for non-fiction films which assert their status as both art and activism and thus the license they claim to refuse compliance with certain classic codes of ethical documentary filmmaking.

Unruly artivist films are obliged to produce useful experience.

In my opinion, unruly artivist films are obliged to produce useful experience. Good filmmaking comes down to education – education of the senses, including the sixth sense, as the Buddhists would have it, the mind. Unruly or not, the questions to ask of all films remain the same: 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 suspect that the critics – like the rest of us – don’t know what to do with their engagement with this “bold” film. Without noting any personal discomfort, they stab wildly, flattering the film with platitudes: audacious, timeless, explosive, shattering, horribly brilliant, shocking, transporting, unprecedented, bizarre, hypnotic, surreal, disturbing, timeless, unforgettable, unmissable, essential, stunning, a minor miracle, a new form of cinematic surrealism, an absolute and unique masterpiece, a radical development in the documentary form, unprecedented in the history of cinema, every frame is astonishing, and so on.

I read these vague and awkward phrases as fumbling attempts to avoid the writers’ own confusion. Or perhaps the critics lack the energy, or the means, or both, to confront what has happened to them in their cinema seats. Yes, they have endured extreme sensation – sensation way off their critical charts. They can say they’ve never seen anything like this before, and they haven’t. Yet, without analysis of their own experience in the theater – and perhaps not wishing to be left off the cheerleading bandwagon – they jump on and more amazed raves flow forth.

As far as I have been able to discover, no critic has admitted discomfort in the face of this “candy-colored moral migraine” (J. Hoberman).  Here and there are tiny hints: Nicolas Rapold wrote from the film’s premiere, “Toronto shock and outrage at the grotesque spectacle of impunity settles into helpless numbness [emphasis mine] over the course of the 116-minute running time.” Anthony Lane, in the The New Yorker, queries: “Unforgettable though such scenes may be, however, is it wise to weave such fantasies—however distressing or therapeutic—around the practice of evil when the facts of the case are, to most viewers, so obscure?” Jonathan Rosenbaum, on his blog: “Maybe there’s some other use value for his showcase of the feelings of mass murderers that I haven’t yet been able to tease out of this material.” So far, only Nick Fraser, a BBC Commissioning Editor, and the independent critic, Jennifer Merin, both at About.com, have written negatively about the film – elegantly and succinctly. The rest of the critics have handled this hot and “revered” documentary without respect for the Indonesian people, or, it’s my understanding, for the film’s international audiences.

Throughout the film, Oppenheimer encourages his collaborators to produce ostentatiously surreal and violent dramatic film reconstructions of their death squad activities. Ever since Robert Flaherty asked his Inuit collaborator, Nanook the Bear, (his real name was "Allakariallak") to fake the capture of a seal in 1922 – at the very beginning of ethnographic film tourism – we have seen hundreds of social actors perform “real” re-enactments of their lives for the cameras of documentary filmmakers. There is nothing new in “The Act of Killing” but carnage, and the special, cozy relationship we are urged to enjoy with the killers. Perhaps this is exactly what the critics are avoiding with their raves – that they have been duped into admiring, for an hour or two, the cool Rat Pack killers of Medan.

Collaboration is a way to share, with the social actors represented, responsibility for a film’s acts of description, strategies and arguments…a way to “keep it clean.” Some of the most useful films I’ve seen in the last twenty years – non-fiction and otherwise – have been the products of collaboration with the social actors represented, in unique and disparate ways. Carolyn Strachan and Allessandro Cavadini’s “Two Laws,” Kent MacKenzie’s “The Exiles,” and Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s “Ten Canoes” come quickly to mind.

First on this list should be Rithy Pahn’s “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” – the perfect counter model to “The Act of Killing.” In S-21, the two survivors of the infamous Cambodian prison and their Khmer Rouge prison guards are brought together in a patient re-enactment of their crimes, which the traumatized guards cannot otherwise recollect.”The Act of Killing” is also a collaboration of sorts, but for me a non-productive, uncomfortable, even unclean one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Here are six warnings based on what I saw in “The Act of Killing,” a dangerous model for the future. I write here to start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none – not yet. It is up to us to learn from this film and work hard to avoid its miscalculations and mistakes.

67 Comments

  • John Roosa | March 10, 2014 8:39 PMReply

    Six Ways of Not Seeing a Film
    John Roosa

    Jill Godmilow asks that documentary film educate the viewer with “useful history and analysis.” Her critique reveals that she completely missed the education that The Act of Killing offers. Oppenheimer is teaching calculus and she’s complaining he’s not teaching her addition.

    1.
    Poor Jill. So much went over her head. Like the meaning of the re-enactments. For Jill, “there is nothing new” in these re-enactments; they are like those in Nanook of the North (1922). Wow, that’s quite a comparison given that the decades-long discussion of Flaherty’s film has been on the fact that his re-enactments were not revealed to the viewer as re-enactments. Oppenheimer does the exact opposite: he films people as they present themselves to the camera. The viewer sees them talk about how they wish to re-enact events; the viewer knows the subjects in the film are performing for the camera. We learn about the subjects from their manner of self-presentation. Oppenheimer turns Flaherty inside-out and Jill just sees the same old Flaherty.

    You know Jill is the student needing new glasses when you find her expressing the point of the film as a criticism of it: “As with scenes of people praying and meditating on camera, it’s hard to believe that these are not performances of self for the camera… perhaps, even unconsciously…” Kudos to Jill for getting the right answer for the wrong reason. Yes, they are performing for the camera. That’s what Oppenheimer wanted you to understand.

    2.
    The only thing Jill sees as new in TAOK is “carnage, and the special, cozy relationship we are urged to enjoy with the killers.” Carnage. Is that how this film is to be described? Somehow Jill missed the majority of the scenes which are about Anwar and his posse talking about the meaning of the killing and the ways they should represent themselves. It takes some effort not to see all those scenes and fixate on the re-enactments of violence. It also takes some effort by a viewer to feel that the film is urging her to enjoy a “cozy relationship” with the killers, or duping her “into admiring, for an hour or two, the cool Rat Pack killers of Medan.” I would have thought it was clear that the film presents Anwar and his friends as repulsive. The film encourages us to see them as human, not as caricatures of evil. But it certainly doesn’t allow the viewer to feel cozy with them. (Since she sees Anwar and his friends as the Rat Pack, I’m worried about the kind of bad crowd this student Jill is hanging out with.)
    Read rest of essay on Act of Killing's Facebook page

  • Adam | March 8, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    The misguided wrath of Godmilow's Professorial Emerita should be re-directed towards the redundant, bland, award-ridden insult to documentary film: '20 Feet From Stardom'

  • Rob | March 9, 2014 7:38 AM

    Were '20 Feet From Stardom' as critically successful as TAOK beyond the political stunt of it's Oscars win, and were it as complex and as unanimously brilliant as TAOK, I'm sure you'd see plenty of similar piles of pseudo-intellectual rubbish about it like this article, written by similarly dull, bitter and outdated writers. lol

  • K | March 7, 2014 9:37 PMReply

    I only read the first page because I don't care what some white woman thinks about this. Maybe the message you're missing is - not everything in the world is all about you & your feelings.

    Also because pagination is rly annoying. Single-page-view plz

  • Sergio | March 7, 2014 8:11 PMReply

    I will watch the film now! I want to know what I feel after watching the movie! Thanks for the article

  • Chris | March 7, 2014 6:57 PMReply

    Hi Indiewire,

    Great site and a fascinating article that makes me want to do a point-by-point rebuttal. For free, to submit to feed the hungry Indiewire web beast! To some immediate-ish deadline otherwise, I won't have time. I'm not a filmmaker though, I am a journalist, writer and doco-film geek (studied at university blah blah), who happens to live in Indonesia.

    I was one of a handful of people who first saw the film here, and some of the things I think this writer says are spot on, and others, well, they offend me. Enough to make me want to "go into dialogue" without payment, y'know, with the crushing possibility of rejection, if not up to scratch... Thing is, most sites have a place you can contact for editorial (I know it's annoying, those fanboys and girls at your virtual door all the time...) but, ummm, not Indiewire, or am I just going blind?

    PS. I don't really do Twitter -- I guess that kills any likely response from editorial team right there, heh.

  • Rob | March 8, 2014 11:50 AM

    Would definitely like to know what points you found spot-on.

  • Anon | March 7, 2014 7:03 PM

    If not on here, then on a blog or something. Seriously, I would love to see a well written rebuttal.

  • Anon | March 7, 2014 7:01 PM

    Please do! I would also love to see the author of this article respond to some of the criticisms of it that are being made in the comments.

  • Picador | March 7, 2014 3:32 PMReply

    I'm a little taken aback by the vitriol in the comments.

    Godmilow's piece seems to me to be making a reasonable critique:

    1. The filmmaker and the critics have represented this piece to the public as "unprecedented" and described their own bewilderment over dealing with the ethical considerations involved in making (and seeing) the film.

    2. But in fact these issues have come up many times before in the practice of documentary filmmaking, and many intelligent, experienced filmmakers have come up with rules for dealing with them and made solid arguments why those rules are important.

    3. When those rules are applied to the way The Act of Killing was made and presented, the film exhibits a number of serious ethical violations that experienced filmmakers have carefully avoided for decades for very good reason.

    If you disagree with any part of this analysis, you should say so. But I've seen little in the comments making reasoned arguments against any of the statements in the article.

  • Rob | March 7, 2014 4:38 PM

    Picador:

    It might be worth answering to if this article itself were worth it, but it isn't. You might want to look at Critical Asian Studies (CAS) roundtable discussion about the film in the most recent issue. The 12 contributors go into much more detail and quite literally every point she has made in this article has already been discussed and mostly constructively discredited in the past year or so, so actually there is nothing new here at all. Her language is also pompous and moralistic. Some of her facts are also wrong, and she has clearly chosen to obfuscate and omit much of Oppenheimer's own answers to the 'problems' she has apparently presented. All of which he (as a published academic, mind you) has provided much of.

    Reluctant to bother going into more detail for the above reasons, but first and foremost her pompousness and particularly her cries of racism etc are answered in a few of the Indonesian voices present right here in this comment thread - and in most of the press in Indonesia itself, which of course she has either intentionally omitted or not bothered to research - instead referencing Western academics claiming to speak for Indonesians. White Westerners who have made pseudointellectual accusations of 'racism' or some such thing at work in TAOK, as Godmillow has done here, do nothing but reveal their own naivety in their patronizing assumptions. You might notice the shock at the 'little brown people' line in these comments was taken literally instead of rhetorically and thus read offensively - but it may's well have been. In regards to the film and its relationship to post-colonial power relations, most Indonesians I know feel this way, for what it's worth. Who does she claim to speak for? That is a simple enough question to discredit much of what she has written here.

  • Rob | March 7, 2014 11:43 AMReply

    This 'critique' is a factually innacurate, ranting piece of pseudo-intellectual garbage - all six 'points' have already been answered many times over in the past 6 months or so. Big fail, Jill Godmillow. Also the disingenuousness of labeling her as a 'Oscar-nominated director' is laughable. I've never heard of any of her or any of her films, potentially for good reason if the quality of her films match the paltry intellectual rigour of this.

  • rob | March 7, 2014 6:15 PM

    Harriss - Had she researched properly or read his statements to begin with - for instance a) his lengthy writings, interviews regarding and ongoing activism towards the recognition of the US role in the '65 events (including the title card at the beginning of the film as someone below mentioned but she clearly forgot or didn't notice), b) his insistence on the creative role of ambiguity in the film and the aesthetic function of omitting historical details towards creating nightmarish atmosphere that serves the films psychological and thus political power in highlighting impunity in the present day, c) his choices to humanize the subjects rather than demonize them and the political effect of this, etc etc - then she wouldn't have made statements to the contrary that these things were left unconsidered, which is what she is inaccurately saying with a degree of self-satisfaction. This is why the article is effectively a string of straw-mans - misrepresentations and dishonest omissions that the filmmakers would have to laboriously repeat themselves to answer.

    You also mention another idea reflected in much of the similar 'criticisms' of the film - that it 'didn't need/shouldn't have been made'. The extraordinarily positive effect that the film has had and is having on Indonesian internal public discourse is the answer to that question, the other answer being the complete lack of noticeable repercussions that she is purporting the film to be in 'danger' of animating. Yet more reasons why this is drab pseudointellectualism.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 4:37 PM

    Rob- Just because he addressed all six points doesn't mean she found his answers satisfactory. Are we supposed to just say "Oh, that concern must not be valid anymore, because Joshua Oppenheimer says so"? Besides, he himself has said that he had ethical concerns many times during the making of this movie. So if that is the case, then one would hope that this is truly a film that needed to be made. The author of this article contends that it wasn't, you aren't obligated to agree of course.

  • Rob | March 7, 2014 4:11 PM

    Picador:

    Ha, well quite. More meant to point out that the Oscar reference was mere click-bait, and also reflected the self-interest of this article which purports to be a decisive critique and is dressed-up as such, but is flimsy at best and smug to boot - the tell-tail signs of pseudo-intellectualism. And yes obviously fair call that I haven't substantiated my critique, I may find the time too later.

    Oscar reference also amusing as TAOK's loss of the best doco award to a feel-good flick about back-up singers was offensively political and politically offensive.

  • Picador | March 7, 2014 3:22 PM

    Rob:

    I'll only say that it took me about 15 seconds on Google to confirm that one of her films was nominated for an academy award.

    You seem to have high standards for "intellectual rigour". For other people.

    Try being less angry. And try supporting your arguments instead of just screaming.

  • McPetruk | March 7, 2014 8:37 AMReply

    Thanks to Indiewire for giving Jill Godmillow and a generation of righteous, pedantic bores enough intellectual rope to hang themselves.

  • bvnovr | March 7, 2014 7:26 AMReply

    i'm indonesian and i found this piece of garbage movie manipulative and onesided. it is a fact that the USA/CIA financed the killers. why is this not in the movie? this movie portrays indonesia like some backwards country full of thugs and idiots that are in dire need of help from the western world. well SCREW YOU! did you forget about all the native indians you murdered? all those innocent people in hiroshima and nagasaki you bombed? the list goes on and on.

  • Parjio Sukemat | March 7, 2014 2:49 PM

    It is in fact that the first title card in the very beginning of the film says the West--that includes USA--aided the mass killing. You want more detail? Well, this is not a film about the involvement of USA in the mass killing. There're many other film about US involvement in mass killing all over the world, made by people from western and eastern world.

    Well, I'm an Indonesian too. You said, the film is onesided, ya? Which side you think is needed to be in the film?

    No, the film didn't forget about the native Indians, as Adi Zulkardy says, "What about the killings of Indian? Is there anyone tried for this? Get them to the court!"

    Which part of the movie says that we need the help of the western world? We need more people like those 60 Anonymous crew. Brave Indonesians who do something to tell something that was hidden from Indonesians for almost half a century.

    Have you seen the film, anyway. You sound like you just read some reviews but never seen the film. If you're an Indonesian, go see it at you tube. It's free.

  • Rickola | March 7, 2014 4:56 AMReply

    Have you considered retiring and allowing new, interesting and challanging film makers the freedom to make films?

  • Robert | March 6, 2014 6:19 PMReply

    Very interesting piece. I'm of two minds regarding the film, with one foot in the door of calling it "landmark" and another in the cesspool of doubt wondering if it exploits its subjects and subject matter. I guess if it can generate such strong reactions from me and others there must be something to it.

  • Bjorn | March 6, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    This deranged rant of a "critique" doesn't even justify a detailed response – it's simply incoherent.

  • nina menkes | March 6, 2014 3:51 PMReply

    Totally agree with the article. I myself walked out of the film, found it revolting, and ethically.......................in the garbage.

  • Markie | March 6, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    Thanks so much to Jill for articulating everything that the documentary didn't and for offering up a higher standard to which we all should aspire.

  • lclarsen | March 6, 2014 1:56 PMReply

    WOW. And to think that innocent perusal of People magazine led to this nightmare of a piece.

    1) Indonesian victim groups told him to make this movie.

    2) Indoneisan human rights groups are encouraged because this movie has literally single-handedly got a leader of Indonesia to admit the massacres were a crime.

    3) How can you both be angry that they are letting killers talk and then feel sorry for the central killer when he admits the film is "making life difficult for him"? And then ALSO be angry that the film was a catalyst and chronicle of his coming to grips with his crimes?

    4) "Little Brown People"?????

    5) Oppenheimer has been on a media tour explaining the collusion of the US (and other Western powers) in the killings. He specifically details CIA involvement and explains how elements of the corrupt dictatorship have kept power even up until now with Western support. He left this out of the film so that it would secure a wider audience. It is highly unlikely that it would've received such universal acclaim and nominations had it focused on US involvement, and his goal with the film was to make the biggest impact in terms of Indonesia changing and the world being made aware of the crimes. Those who wish to follow up, and there are many, will easily find the truth, even from the special features on the DVD.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 4:00 PM

    I apologize for the double comment.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 3:53 PM

    1. Yes, and? Does that automatically make her critic invalid? And what you're saying is according to Oppenheimer, keep in mind.

    2. Again, according to Oppeheimer, and one of his anonymous assistants actually disagreed with him on how much the movie had changed things in an interview of the two of them.

    3. I think her main point here was that it wasn't a catalyst, and that he isn't, in fact, experiencing remorse.

    4. She was making a point here about how people who aren't white are portrayed in docs. You can certainly disagree that that was an issue in this movie, but she was clearly using the phrase ironically here.

    5. But we're only talking about the movie here. And I think it's legitimate to be concerned about how this movie might effect westerner's perceptions of Indonesia.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 3:44 PM

    1. That's true. But that doesn't make the author of this article wrong.

    2. I'm sure Mr. Oppenheimer wants to believe this film has changed things, that doesn't make it so

    3. Her criticism is of the fact that the victims aren't in the film at all. And of the idea that Anwar's apology was genuine, or meaningful even if it was genuine.

    4. She is saying this to make a point about how people are portrayed in these kind of films.

    5. We're not discussing Oppenheimer's media tour here. Only the movie.

    That said, I'm somewhat conflicted about this article myself. Just arguing the authors side here.

  • Liam then | March 6, 2014 12:19 PMReply

    I really hope next time mr oppenheimer would make a real documentary on how freport mcmor
    rans for decades safely digging down a mountain in papua..paying only a percent of royalty back and how did they land on such a sweet deal..would be very interested how mr.oppenheimer disclose later what freeport use to secure their sides...then lets talk about morality and humanity.fk..tired of these hypocrisy.thank u again jill.g

  • Sarjono | March 7, 2014 2:55 PM

    What? Freeport? What do you mean?

    The Act of Killing explains how Freeport, Exxon, etc can rob Indonesian richness by paying those ruling elite and military who has guns and those thugs to keep the whole population in fear.

    Which hypocrisy are you talking Liam?

  • Liam then | March 6, 2014 12:03 PMReply

    thank u alot Jill G. your lenghthy review just bridges what i really think about this so called documentary..which i think you are too kind..i'll put it simply with my bad english that this documentary is rubbish...made by hiprocrisy disguising itself as moral police...i wonder how many died in the fight against communism all over the world back in that time...and now this mr.oppenheimer did this rubbish as an art of uncovering truth ..

  • Sarjono | March 7, 2014 2:56 PM

    Ah... I see. You are those guys. Paid by the Indonesian govt/military/intel to do "justify the mass killing" campaign/operation.

    I see.

  • Deaf Ears | March 6, 2014 10:20 AMReply

    snore

  • The Dog | March 6, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    Absolutist ethical standards are based on the theory that someone - or Someone - is keeping score. Documentaries like this remind us that there is no such assurance of supreme justice. We will never know if we are seeing the "real" Congo at the end because that real Congo has no single definition, no "moral centre" (to use a really silly term). Neither does the filmmaker. Despite our protestations, neither do we, the audience. I like the film because it made me a better atheist.

  • Filmmaker | March 6, 2014 5:00 AMReply

    "made with Cassandra Gerstein and an all-female crew"

    Yeah, there's someone without an axe to grind....

  • Agung | March 6, 2014 3:51 AMReply

    "Little Brown People"??? WTF?? Wow, I couldn't read past this racist stereotyping. At least Oppenheimer treated them like individuals. Even if the murders were US backed, the guys on screen were the ones who did the killing, with relish.

  • Rahmat Jaelani | March 8, 2014 6:33 AM

    If Jill remember about Indonesian co-director, producer, and 60 other Indonesian crew, would she still thinks that Joshua treated his film subject as "little brown people?" Is this term used because Joshua and Jill is white and thought that white people shouldn't make a film and be preachy to other races because of what? Because we, Indonesian, the little brown people, is different?

    While, as an Indonesian, I don't feel that the film is about 'little brown people', I know that some racists will watch the film as a film about 'little brown people.' So, what should Joshua do, when he found a story about human being, whatever their race are, so it won't be seen by some racist as a film about 'little brown people'? Nothing!

    If someone has already had a mind set about 'little brown people' no matter strong the humanity message in the film s/he will see the film as a story about 'little brown people' anyway.

    Forget Joshua the white American-Jew director. What if this film is directed by Steve McQueen? Any different? Or should we say, "Hey, American, stay out of this 'little brown people' story. Just make some tourism advertising and investment opportunity of their land."

    Forget Steve McQueen. What if the whole movie directed and produced by all Indonesians. What would we have heard? "Hey, middle class Javanese Indonesian, stay out of this uneducated poor low class Indonesian and make a film about them. You know nothing about their life, you don't live their life."

    It will be all spiralling down to a conclusion that only Anwar Congo should have made a film about himself. And that's what Joshua and the Anonymous co-director, and the Anonymous producer, and other 60 Anonymous Indonesian crew has made, i.e. The Act of Killing/Jagal.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 4:18 PM

    Come on. She was making a point about how she felt Indonesians where portrayed in this movie. I.E. Patronizingly.

  • Kyle Burton | March 6, 2014 1:56 AMReply

    This argument intimates that documentary comes from and must remain in this mode of historicity, fairness, morality, ethics, process--a mode of journalism. Only one part of that assumption is true.

    "The Act of Killing" maintains firm insubordination toward those expectations for a very clear reason: The doc cannot make sense of the situation. Politically, that situation's complex. But the doc is not incited by politics. Its is a human reaction: How could this be?

    Is it Oppenheimer's responsibility to make "Shoah: Indonesia"? Of course not. Instead, he peers inside these men. Forget the sociopolitical circumstances that give way to like terror. What in a person--an individual--can be seduced by this wretched course of life? The doc aims to confront. It aims to upset. "It’s titillating to stand on the safe side of a one-way mirror…unseen, amazed, judging": Are we so weak an audience that our premium pleasure with documentary is categorizing and judging the people on screen? We're supposed to feel repulsed neither by these "foot-soldiers" themselves nor some sympathetic or even "glamorized" platform they've been given; rather, the doc, as others have pointed out, recognizes that evil action is not so definitively traced back to an evil person. Where do we go from there? Oppenheimer's looking.

    The dialogue opened up here is worthwhile. But it's important to accept these "warnings" as preferences, not lessons. These are regressive "warnings," but they are restrictions with a productive track-record.

    We should be thankful for this article. While it is codified in a standard of expectation paralleling the one it's trying to impose on "The Act of Killing" (and nonfiction film as a whole), people responding this emphatically, disparately, and theoretically to a film is testament to it pushing us to a place many of us aren't yet comfortable with. Not a fan? The coming film-scape will be generous to your dissension.

  • Adam | March 8, 2014 2:01 AM

    Well said

  • Myhre | March 5, 2014 9:57 PMReply

    "Waaah! Someone is calling this film a documentary, and I feel personally that it should fall under more stringent guidelines to be addressed as such! WAAAH!! Give credence to my pedantry! Waaaaaahh!"

  • Victor Morton | March 5, 2014 9:46 PMReply

    Meanwhile, I can't not note that the very same paragraph praising "a dedication to history and context" claims that "US style anti-communism" existed before either the United States or the birth of Karl Marx's grandfather. A statement that is completely ahistorical and/or ... well, "anti"-contextual.

  • Biz | March 7, 2014 5:30 PM

    To what paragraph are you referring? I couldn't find it.

  • Victor Morton | March 5, 2014 9:43 PMReply

    "imagine a documentary with Al-Qaeda more or less boasting they murdered people on 9/11 would that be oscar nominated? it is powerful and ''fascinating'' as long as it happens somewhere else isn't it ?"
    ---------------------------------
    Why do the people who object to ACT OF KILLING's existence assume that they know the answer that those of us who think it's a great film would give to that question, or its Godwin cognates? Wait ... I know ... and if I thought like these "critics," I'd feel perfectly free to state it and attribute it to them as if it were true. A taste of their own medicine, one might call it.

    Regardless ... that hypothetical al Qaeda film (or the Nazis bragging about Auschwitz) would not exist (or rather it wouldn't be an ACT OF KILLING cognate if it did) for a very simply fact that is part of what makes ACT OF KILLING great. Al Qaeda (and Nazi Germany) did not win. The only reason ACT OF KILLING is possible is the actually honored position these men and/or their 60s deeds objectively hold in the real-life country called Indonesia where life has gone on, under the Suharto coup. That victory over Sukarno is the presupposition of the film's tension, its characters, its intellectual stances, its surreality (on several fronts).

  • Allan Weisbecker | March 5, 2014 9:31 PMReply

    Had I not been too exhausted to deal with this silly review, I would have written something like this:

    These men are not monsters. They are pretty average guys, except for the fact that they are mass murderers. As a viewer, I had to figure out a way to deal with that, just as any thinking person has to deal with the fact that genocide and politically motivated atrocities happen all the time and are perpetrated mostly by "average" people with families. I never saw these men as "brown people" or somehow less civilized than I am. In fact, I saw them as very much like some people I know, who, if put in a society and political regime similar to Indonesia and given some power that went along with deep-seated political beliefs (which can happen ANYWHERE jingoism, political corruption, and religious fundamentalism co-exist), would probably act the same way.

    Which was written by someone else (below) and exactly reflects my feelings.

  • DeeDee Halleck | March 5, 2014 9:17 PMReply

    I haven't seen it, but after seeing those stills from it, and the creepy trailer I saw in a theater, as Bartleby said, "I prefer not." Another problem is the fact that the biggest booster of the film is VOA-- Voice of America--which is part of the "security establishment" that brought us the real Indonesian horror. I am glad Jill is taking this on. She has paid her dues in trying to make new forms of documentaries. Challenging, yes, but always with a dedication to history and context. On one point I disagree. "It" did not begin in Iran in 1953. US style anti-communism started with genocide of the puritans against the indigenous population of this continent. The most important reason for that murderous crusade was the fact that the natives could not accept the notion of private property. They were the original communists. Throughout Latin America from 1898 on, any left government was swiftly eliminated. My film, The Gringo In Mañanaland shows how Hollywood and "educational"/industrial films supported and promoted those moves. As to Act of Killing, obviously the Academy members prefer song and dance, overlooking the context and history of (our many) Dirty Wars.
    (I am also an Oscar nominee-- for The Mural on Our Street (doc short subject) 1965!

  • Sulistio Sumarno | March 8, 2014 10:14 AM

    And VoA is not the biggest booster. Not even a booster at all. I mean, who read/listen to VoA?

  • Sulistio Sumarno | March 8, 2014 10:13 AM

    Actually, the biggest booster is The Guardian and in Indonesia, Tempo magazine, The Jakarta Post, and The Jakarta Globe.

    VoA comes later.

  • Pete | March 5, 2014 11:14 PM

    What exactly do you mean by the biggest booster of the film is VOA? Did they somehow finance the film? Ive only seen 2 articles by VOA mentioning the film.

  • md | March 5, 2014 7:33 PMReply

    What better way to chastise the assumed Judeo-Christian, liberal audience and critics who were moved by the film, than to present a bunch of Judeo-Christian, liberal "rules" that all documentarians should abide by. Yes, let's take away "confessional" documentary practices. We should assume our subjects may lie anyway, being that authentic confessions only happen in private to generate rapprochement. Yes, let's only show our subjects in the best possible light. After all, they were nice enough to appear on camera. Also, no more depictions of "little brown people" hurting other "little brown people" by Western lenses, since the West is usually the instigator of such conflicts, and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

    These flimsy rules may benefit the documentarian who thought them up (or they may not), but as for their beneficial qualities to all documentarians, I am more than skeptical. For someone so stringently opposed to "making" history without facts, she presents very few facts herself in her attempt to undermine Oppenheimer's integrity as a filmmaker. The author stabbed at every perceived chink in the armor of the film, without ever penetrating with a clear and factual example of how the film or filmmaker actually sinned.

    It would be interesting to see this article presented in a documentary form that attempts to adhere to the dogma laid out in it.

  • Anna | March 5, 2014 7:07 PMReply

    I was shocked when watching this documentary in a theater that it was met largely with peals of laughter, followed by awe at the cinematography - which was by all admission, breathtaking. The third reaction was shock at this horrible and very recent history so many of us know very little about. True, the film was poetic and beautifully shot and it's artistic merits can not be faulted. But I don't think it's artistry elevates it above being a piece of fairly indulgent film-making for both the director and participants rather than a profound study in the events it portrays, or indeed how we, as spectators consume the film.

    Rather than portray the ravaging effects of war or mass hysteria and its ramifications on 'ordinary' people and how it changes their behaviour, it showed a group of men who showed no remorse and who were still proud and quite visibly, feared in their community. The only iota of self recognition by them was crudely grafted onto the film for me at the end in the torture recreation scene and when one of the forerunners' grandson finds a wounded chicken. Forgive me if these references are wrong; by this point I was completely uninvested in the documentary and in even identifying with these men as human beings, never mind ones who are have intimidated the denizens of their home place into treating them as celebrities.


    It was surreal and it was stunning but past the surface, the thing which was most surreal for me was the wide audience treating it as spectacle rather than a documentary. To laugh at a man who has killed thousands pompously putting on a wig and make up is giving him a platform he quite simply doesn't deserve.

  • Marian | March 5, 2014 5:40 PMReply

    A delight to read this. The Act of Killing is not yet available here, so I haven't seen it, but it's so good to see a thoughtful, filmmaker-written, discussion about the ethics of documentary filmmaking when working with social actors in another culture. Many thanks to you, Jill.

  • Marian | March 5, 2014 5:57 PM

    There's a complementary article entitled 'The Act of Killing: don't give an Oscar to this snuff movie' from the Guardian, by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC's Storyville documentary series.

  • Jim Dodge | March 5, 2014 5:33 PMReply

    Only two critics wrote negatively about the film? She didn't research the article very much. A simple Rotten Tomatoes search reveals six critics who wrote about it negatively.

  • Harriss | March 7, 2014 4:11 PM

    Yea, but I've read many reviews of this film at this point, and the two she mentioned are the first negative ones I've seen. And six critics isn't all that many considering how many people must have reviewed it at this point, is it? I do agree that Johnathan Rosenbaum clearly has negative feelings about the movie. On the other hand, I still tend to think the author of this article might have a point.

  • Nathan | March 6, 2014 7:19 PM

    Including Jonathan Rosenbaum, who gave it one of his trademark "This movie that people are saying is good is transparently worthless garbage", which somehow got transformed into an effusive rave on his part here.

  • JT | March 5, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    I see many more than 3 or 4 documentaries a year. I make documentary films and have quite a bit of historical knowledge of the genre. I thought The Act of Killing was one of the most thought provoking, mesmerizing, and uncomfortable documentary I have seen in quite some years and while I found this article interesting, I really don't agree with much of what the author is saying. She and I had a fundamentally different experience watching this doc. At first, when I heard about The Act of Killing, I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch it. But I did, out of some sense of duty (I was voting for the Spirit Awards). Yes, it was jaw dropping. Yes, I watched in horror as the men the doc focused on talked about the horrible things they had done as if it was just another day at work.

    But it was so much more than "pornography."

    These men are not monsters. They are pretty average guys, except for the fact that they are mass murderers. As a viewer, I had to figure out a way to deal with that, just as any thinking person has to deal with the fact that genocide and politically motivated atrocities happen all the time and are perpetrated mostly by "average" people with families. I never saw these men as "brown people" or somehow less civilized than I am. In fact, I saw them as very much like some people I know, who, if put in a society and political regime similar to Indonesia and given some power that went along with deep-seated political beliefs (which can happen ANYWHERE jingoism, political corruption, and religious fundamentalism co-exist), would probably act the same way.

    I have always felt the best films (fictional or documentary) confront the viewer with ideas or emotions that are challenging and sometimes difficult to process. The more we think about the implications of what a film means, whether we liked or hated it, the more successful the film was at accomplishing its goal. So, for me, The Art of Killing was an incredibly successful film and one I won't soon forget. I wish I could say that about most documentaries I see or even the ones I make.

  • Allan Weisbecker | March 5, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    Although I disagree with with virtually everything said here, I'll only make a simple observation, which, I would submit, is inarguable, almost by definition: If 'The Act of Killing' didn't spawn outraged, moralizing diatribes like what we have here, it wouldn't be the profound piece of art that it is.

  • ANGELINA JOLIE98765 | March 6, 2014 1:58 AM

    BRAD PITT 54321 asks "...a man boasting that he raped 14 year olds - is that a masterpiece ? ? ?

    Um, did you not realise (a) this is a scene in a documentary where an individual does indeed volunteer these things on camera (b) there is no evidence whatsoever that the filmmakers approve of what is said, quite the contrary - in fact, if you had seen the film, this would have been obvious.

    Marcel Ophuls "Hotel Terminus" portrays Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, imprisoned and incarcerated for torture and murder - I guess you won't be looking at that either.

  • brad pitt 54321 | March 5, 2014 7:27 PM

    a man boasting that he raped 14 year olds

    is that a masterpiece ? ? ?

  • Rico | March 5, 2014 4:43 PMReply

    It may feel bracing and righteous to mount an attack like this, but each of those six elements is present in all documentary film in one way or another. For better or worse, docs manipulate. What makes The Act so completely arresting is that it is a mirror of our current relationship with media - voyeuristic, awful, uncomfortably engaging, etc. It's also true that many of the author's points are simply overstated. e.g. The last idea - no therapy - is too dogmatic to be real. Confessions can be private, but need not be. And reconciliation doesn't have to be an officially sanctioned effort to work. It may be grim and uncomfortable, but we are all complicit in this world, whether we like it or not. Today's media - and docs included - makes us witness terrible events, too often without bearing it. The Act makes this profound point. My take here, in case there's interest: http://bit.ly/1gSf9Kl

  • BH | March 7, 2014 5:24 PM

    What do you mean "Too often without bearing it"? Could you elaborate?

  • parsyeb | March 5, 2014 4:29 PMReply

    Sophistry and entertainment value mean more to people than political or ethical considerations. That many of Act of Killing's admirers are people who only see 3 or 4 docs a year and who have NO historical knowledge of the genre (not to mention its overlaps in anthropology and ethnographic procedure) tells you much that you need to know about its situation in the US.

    "Gee, I had an emotional response, after all. The thing held my attention like nothing but Mad Men can!"

  • chris | March 5, 2014 4:13 PMReply

    "compliance with certain classic codes of ethical documentary filmmaking"

    What are these codes? Where are they written? Who made them?

    You offer some interesting criticisms of the film and counterpoints against which to measure it (the attempt to dismiss critics that liked the film is too self-serving). The headings in the article that suggest there are some "commandments" being offered for documentary filmmaking, however, are a bit much. One person's aesthetic is not a code by which others are obliged to abide.

  • Christopher | March 5, 2014 4:04 PMReply

    This long diatribe reads like the death rattle of an old world order of documentary filmmaking.

    The author could have summed it up with one sentence, "Joshua Oppenheimer and I have different opinions on what makes an ethical and good documentary."

    With all do respect, the authors view point lurks behind a thick lens of 40 years in the business, and documentaries are no longer subject to the norms of earlier documentary norms.

    The story and, dare I say, the 'Truth' (with a capital 'T') of this work shines through.

  • thingmaker | March 9, 2014 4:36 PM

    A TASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE
    "imagine a documentary with Al-Qaeda more or less boasting they murdered people on 9/11
    would that be oscar nominated ?"
    I have imagined such a doc and concluded that, if it were well made, would be an excellent and necessary piece of filmmaking. What was your point again?

  • a taste of their own medicine | March 5, 2014 7:36 PM

    imagine a documentary with Al-Qaeda more or less boasting they murdered people on 9/11
    would that be oscar nominated ?
    it is powerful and ''fascinating'' as long as it happens somewhere else isn't it ?