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Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With 'The Act of Killing'

By Jill Godmilow | Indiewire March 5, 2014 at 3:49PM

"I write here to start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none."
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"The Act of Killing"
Drafthouse Films A musical sequence from "The Act of Killing."

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.

Act of Killing

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.

This article is related to: The Act of Killing , Joshua Oppenheimer, Awards Season, Spirit Awards, Oscar Academy Award, Spirit Awards, Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries







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