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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

Avoid Building a Film on the Bedrock of Pornography

Pornography is the use of other people’s “reality” for our pleasure. In “The Act of Killing,” our pornographic interest is generated primarily by the gangsters’ ignorance of us watching and disapproving. It’s titillating to stand on the safe side of a one-way mirror…unseen, amazed, judging…as the gangster’s cinema fantasies grow more and more grandiose. The film keep stimulating wonder, and titillating narrative questions: “How far will the gangsters go… especially on camera?” “Don’t they know we are watching them… aghast?” “Why have they been tolerated for so long?”  There are adequate answers and explanations of the gangsters’ performances but explanations would dampen audience fascination with the sideshow.

Don’t titillate us with others’ sad condition, with the Medan gangsters’ demonstrations of their power and their Hollywood fantasies. Rather, try to de-titillate or de-pornographize such experiences, so that the underlying structural forces producing and protecting these criminal behaviors are laid bare. There are many techniques to do this: Harun Farocki de-pornographized napalm in “Inextinguishable Fire.” Trinh T. Minh-ha de-pornographized African villagers in “Reassemblage.” Alain Resnais de-pornographized the atomic bomb in “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

Don't Compromise Your Audience

As the cameras roll, Congo proudly demonstrates his preferred killing technique (strangling with piano wire…“less blood”) then carefully directs the re-enactment of it on film. Because the American director stands in for viewers, we enjoy, vicariously, his intimate, non-judging, comfortable collaboration with Congo. As the filmmaker’s accomplices, we are unable to separate from identifying with his methods of seduction – cameras, crew, make up, props, costumes, and extravagant lighting instruments – so that the gangsters can squeeze, in their inept way, sinister, and sometimes absurdly romanticized, movie experience from their histories.

Normally, in non-fiction film – for better or for worse – we are left alone with our Judeo-Christian “thou-shalt-not-kill” and certainly our “thou-shalt-not-kill-and-boast-about-it” judgments. But here, both our invisibility behind the camera, and our comfortable and confident superior moral position has been eroded by our partnership with the unseen but very present director, who keeps encouraging the gangsters’ boasting demonstrations.

We want to trust the director but we are not used to this treatment and so we squirm… we squirm, rationalize and hope… hoping, for almost two hours, that the end of the film will loose the narrative straightjacket we have suffered by Congo’s finally realizing remorse.  We feel deeply compromised by the intimacy and collusion. We struggle to exercise our own judgment. Our occasional snickerings at the glamorized fantasies are but feeble attempts to twist ourselves out of this excruciating dilemma. The filmmaker has forced a trade of our moral reasoning for grotesque cinema thrills.

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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