A little boy playing in a deserted street in Syria runs past a sniper. The brother of one of the million victims of the Indonesian genocide confronts his killer. A NSA contractor speaks out about top-secret surveillance programs, voluntarily making himself a hot target of the U.S. administration.
These are some of the scenes that brave documentary filmmakers caught from political hot spots around the world. In the process, they often endangered themselves as well as their subjects.
But is the level of risk a filmmaker takes relevant for viewers or critics evaluating the film? Does a hazardous production make the film worthier? Shouldn’t we as communicators of the viewing experience keep our eyes on the final product and not let our judgment be influenced by the PR-spun tales of the blood, sweat and tears spilled behind the scenes?
In general, yes. If you need to know why the film is great, it’s not great. Quality must be found in the film itself.
Saying you don’t care about any of the dangers a filmmaker has gone through is off course very arrogant for a critic sitting safely at home. A film made under dangerous circumstances isn’t automatically better, but a director who compromised his or her personal safety for the sake of bringing an important story to the light of day deserves to be treated with respect. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out weaknesses in the film, or deem it unsuccessful.
In some cases, the circumstances around a film production manifest themselves in the artistic outcome in a way that the two cannot be separated.
Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” which opened on Friday and will expand to more markets in coming weeks, screened in this year’s New York Film Festival alongside “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” by Ossama Mohammed and “The Look of Silence” by Joshua Oppenheimer. In all three films, the perils of their making drastically affect the mood, narrative and style in different manners, which are all relevant to discuss.
The three films are, to varying degrees, reflexive documentaries, where the filmmakers draw attention to their own presence and role in the story and at times engage openly with their subjects. This technique raises the viewer’s awareness of the making of the film. The process becomes part of the story.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s presence in “The Look of Silence” is particularly notable. Following up his harrowing documentary “The Act of Killing,” about the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide seen from the perpetrators’ point of view, Oppenheimer’s new film tells the story of the survivors. The main character Adi’s brother was killed before Adi was born, but his death has marked the whole family. Now, Adi sets out to confront the responsible former death squad leaders. For Adi, the purpose is to make the perpetrators acknowledge that what they did was wrong and then forgive them with the hope of living together in harmony.
Oppenheimer filmed “The Look of Silence” before releasing “The Act of Killing,” because he knew it wouldn’t be safe to return to Indonesia after. He had filmed the perpetrators for seven years, and they had a respectful relationship.
“Because the production of ‘The Act of Killing’ was a news story across Sunatra, and they hadn’t seen ‘The Act of Killing’ yet, I was thought to be friends with the vice president of Indonesia, the head of the paramilitary movement and the head of the police,” explained Oppenheimer at a Director’s Dialogue at the New York Film Festival. “I realized they would have to think two or three times before they would attack us physically. So if we took these meetings in rapid successions, working from the low rank and up, maybe we could get away with it.”
Their goodwill is in fact heavily tested when he and Adi confront the perpetrators with footage of interviews conducted for “The Act of Killing,” where they boast about their violent past. Several of the interviewees speak directly to “Josh,” saying they used to like him, but don’t like him asking all these questions.
In the final scene in particular, Oppenheimer participates actively in a confrontation going askew. Adi is confronting the widow and two sons of a perpetrator, whom Oppenheimer filmed 10 years prior, with his killing of 32 people in a village. The family, however, insists they never knew about it.
“It never occurred to me that they would lie like that,” said Oppenheimer at the festival screening’s Q&A. “It made me feel angry on Adi’s behalf.” To make them acknowledge that they knew about their father’s actions, Oppenheimer pushes them and repeatedly plays the footage despite their objections. His attempt backfires, and the situation gets so heated that – this is not shown on camera, but reflects the tension seeping through the screen – one son is about to call the police, before Oppenheimer grabs the phone and somehow convinces him to wait until they have gone.
While Oppenheimer says he doesn’t expect to be able to return to Indonesia safely, that was already the case for Syrian director Ossama Mohammed. An exile living in Paris, he couldn’t film “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait” himself. Instead, he collected material from social media where regular Syrian people uploaded grueling videos of torture, violence and death on their cell-phones. The result is shaky and pixelated images of protestors being shot, young men tortured, bomb stricken cats meowing and children in caskets.
Letting the ordinary people of Syria contribute to their own story provides powerful footage that the director – even if he had been in Syria – wouldn’t have access to. One man could never capture the extent of the horror of the Syrian civil war. But 1,001 Syrians (as Mohammed presents the contributors in a voice over) can. The shaky quality gives the footage immediacy. It’s here and now; you can feel the desperation and smell the fear.
Mohammed also cooperates with Wiam Simav Bedrixan, a young Kurdish woman who contacted him on Facebook asking what he would film if he was in Homs. Her footage from the besieged city includes scenes with children she’s teaching. One scene where Bedrixan follows a small boy rummaging around the ruined streets by himself and discussing with her where to look out for snipers is one of the hardest to watch moments I’ve seen in a film. What is the boy doing out there? And why is Bedrixan filming him instead of bringing him into safety? The scene shows that this is just an everyday situation for the Syrians. The boy is not scared at all, and that is the scariest part.
Laura Poitras’ portrait of Edward Snowden, “Citizenfour,” oozes paranoia. We’re constantly anxious about the security of Snowden, Poitras and ourselves (who’s watching right now?). As the first journalist Snowden contacted, Poitras is unmistakably part of the narrative. Though never seen on camera for more than a glimpse, Poitras acknowledges her role as a participant by telling the story subjectively. The film opens with her voice reading the first emails she got from Snowden. Later, in the hotel room, Snowden and the film’s other protagonist, The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, include her in conversations on camera. We also hear her ask questions.
Snowden hiding from the NSA turns the majority of the film into a chamber piece with Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras in a clinical hotel room in Hong Kong. The confined space underlines the claustrophobic feeling.
Dangerous circumstances also leave a big gap in the story: When Snowden manages to escape the hotel room after the media storm Poitras is unable to follow. At one point, she asks him to film himself, but he declines, saying he doesn’t want to endanger his host. Instead, Poitras turns her camera to other characters and talk to Snowden over the chat, until the final dramatic scene where the three are united in Moscow. Here, Greenwald tells Snowden that he made contact with a new whistleblower with a higher ranking in the NSA. To prevent surveillance, Greenwald writes the name of the whistleblower and how they communicate on little scraps of paper, not shown to the camera. While Snowden’s eyes gets bigger and bigger, the viewer is left in the dark. Thus, the film ends with a giant cliffhanger, which from a cinematic point of view is way more thrilling than the disclosure of a name.
Whether the process is relevant for the evaluation of a film must be a case-to-case judgment call, just like the worthiness of a filmmakers’ risk-taking depends on his or her talent to transfer the tension to the screen. Does the circumstances add anything to the final film?
In “The Look of Silence,” “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait” and “Citizenfour” they do. By inserting themselves – or a deputy – in precarious situations, the directors have gotten access to extraordinary material. And in these cases, incorporating their own person and thereby the process add to the drama and the nerve of the films.
This article was produced as part of the New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.