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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 still

Avoid Using Documentary For Confessions And/Or Primal Therapy

When, at long last, we see Congo in pain, unable to retch… seemingly weakened by the memories he has been attempting to reproduce for the screen, the narrative has completed its task and the audience is relieved of tension…I guess. Theoretically we have been “paid back” for our time and interest, but the payback is unsatisfying and we feel it.  Congo’s remorse is not useful for anything except resolving the film’s narrative and rationalizing the compromising footage that preceded it. Congo’s retching can’t stack up against the murders. It can’t unravel the director’s web of intentions. It offers nothing in the way of restorative justice. And it can’t explain how it was possible for Indonesia to be turned on its political/social ass almost overnight and why it remains in its ghastly condition today. It can’t explain anything that we want to understand. That would require a different kind of film.

Poor Congo. On the “Act of Killing” website, the director explains, “He needs the filmmaking to address his own nightmares so he can live with himself. He’s trying to deal with his pain. He’s trying to experience his pain.” The unseen but ever present filmmaker captures his audience with daring tales of murder, and then rationalizes audience discomfort with the suggestion that we have witnessed the saving of one person’s soul. Congo’s pain is not our business. We are not priests. We cannot pardon anybody. This witnessing makes us feel helpless and distraught. Confessions are private matters unless part of a reconciliation process.

I trust that I am not the only one in the audience who has speculated that Congo felt he owed the American filmmaker an ending, and delivered 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…performed to pay back the filmmaker’s expensive investment in the social actor’s participation in the film. I trust that I am not the only one in the audience who has speculated that Congo felt he owed the American filmmaker an ending, and delivered it.

The possibility that Congo dutifully performed retching for the American filmmaker had apparently never occurred to Oppenheimer. Errol Morris, one of the executive producers of the film, queried the director about this issue, and, as reported in Morris’ Slate article in July, 2013, Oppenheimer was very disturbed by the suggestion that Congo’s participation in his film had not brought him to remorse, that the retching — like the gangsters’ other productions, was a required performance, that Anwar was not seriously interested in confessing guilt. Oppenheimer responded:

You’re raising a very, very scary thought. It’s so disturbing in some way that it would’ve been hard for me to maintain my relationship with Anwar, if this were an operating assumption. It could be right. If Anwar doesn’t have a past and also has these at the very most echoes, reverberations or stains from what he’s done that he doesn’t recognize, and if the final moment is maybe yet another moment of performance, if he then disappears into the night and we’re left in this shop of empty handbags, and there’s no connection to the past on that roof, then it’s almost too chilling for me to contemplate what the whole movie is really saying. It’s a disturbing thought.

It is a disturbing thought.

Afterthoughts

One afternoon, in a dentist’s office, I leafed through People magazine’s December 30,, 2013 issue. There were many top ten lists, among them the Top 10 Movies of the Year. Sandwiched between #3, “American Hustle” and #5, “Gravity,” was #4, “The Act of Killing,” summarized as: “The year’s most stunning documentary unmasks men responsible for mass killings in Indonesia as both boastful and pathetic – and disturbingly, still in power.” Hot stuff - but that’s entertainment. And entertainment, combined with Judeo-Christian high moral education, is what liberal-consensus audiences seem to desire. It’s what gets nominated for Academy Awards.

Perhaps distribution of this film should be limited to the numbed and fearful Indonesia people, among whom – and I take the director’s word on this – the portrayal of Congo’s movie fantasies, and now Congo’s discomfort and guilt are sparking renewed interest in examining the last 48 years of Indonesian history. The director suggests that Congo’s cheesy re-enactments will help reduce fear of the right wing state, which has ruled with violence and intimidation all those years. I hope it does. But I would suggest that the possibility of empowerment has been eclipsed. This would have required input, real collaboration between the perpetrators and victims.

The education of the rest of us has failed. Without education, we are likely to stay silent the next time our politicians see it in their interest to destabilize another peoples’ government, by any means necessary.

Jill Godmilow has produced and directed award-winning non-fiction and narrative films for several decades, including Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974); FAR FROM POLAND (1984), Waiting for the Moon (1987): Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1995); What Farocki Taught, (1997); and Lear '87 Archive (Condensed), (2003). Her work has been recognized by the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, nominated for an Academy Award, and featured at the Whitney Biennial, the Sundance Film Festival (1st prize for Waiting for the Moon), and many others. She has been interviewed in American Film, Afterimage, In These Times, History and Theory, Text Performance Quarterly. In 2003, ANTONIA was added to the prestigious National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. All her films are archived at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research.  She has just retired from 20 years of teaching film production and critical courses in the Department of Film, Television & Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.

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