The function of journalism is, primarily, to uncover vital new information in the public interest, and to put that information in a context so that we can use it to improve the human condition. I feel the purpose of art is somewhat different. What makes art powerful is a flash of recognition, a frightening encounter with something familiar about the human condition. We see something disturbing, but the the moment where we recognize its authenticity, its truth, is always a moment of recognition, a moment of encounter with what we already knew, but had been too afraid to acknowledge – perhaps too afraid even to remember.
Like all art, nonfiction film should invite, seduce, or force us to confront the most difficult, frightening or mysterious aspects of what it means to be human. In that sense, the aim of art is to help us gaze unflinchingly in the mirror. This makes it possible to talk about things we should have talked about long ago, to begin the long overdue process of formulating solutions to our biggest process. By forcing or seducing people to contemplate our most painful truths, nonfiction film – as art – opens a space for us to address our most frightening problems. In this sense, art is different from activism, but it is always an intervention – and it makes activism possible.
Occasionally, when I am dreaming, I experience a flash of understanding so intense it wakes me up, and I see some deep truth about my life for the first time. It’s like the dream is a condensation of something very important about life, a metaphor through which I recognize something I already knew was true but hoped was not. I wake up to a world illuminated by the dream.
For me, this is what cinema should be. We explore a landscape, an urgent problem. I see myself as an explorer more than a storyteller. A great storyteller, in control of her craft, must be the same person when she finishes telling a story as she was at the start. But I want to be transformed by my filmmaking, by the journey I take. And so I look not for characters, but for travelling companions who embody the problems I am exploring and exposing, and who have the courage to take the journey with me. We realize at the start that we will be different people when it’s over. On our journey, we create reality, we change reality, we intervene: always for the purpose of creating a metaphor that expresses the poetic truth of the situation. (For example, in “The Act of Killing,” death squad leaders make a musical, because that’s the poetic truth of their victory, ongoing power, and boasting. In “The Look of Silence,” a victim confronts the still-powerful perpetrators, making visible the threats that underpin a half century of silence. Each of these realities that I create with my travelling companions are metaphors that reveal the inherent awful truth of the situation at hand; rendered as cinema, they form a dark mirror in which we can only recognize our most painful truths.)
I am immersed in this process of creating metaphors throughout the production of the film. What I love about cinema is that the material can be so much smarter than I am. I work hard to create situations with as many inherent layers of meaning as possible, with as much doubleness as possible. Consider the scene where Anwar plays a victim toward the end of “The Act of Killing.” It’s a man being tortured, but it’s an actual perpetrator. It’s also a man going through an emotional ordeal, yet it’s all stylised as a Hollywood film noir… There are multiple layers here, and my job is to create enough space in the edited scene so that viewers can make their own journey through these layers, now focusing on one, and suddenly becoming aware of another. In this way, the viewer makes the film her own. And then when we cut abruptly to a haunted, silent landscape, as I do in both “The Act of Killing” and its companion piece, “The Look of Silence,” the emotions of the journey haunt the these punctuating tableaux. The viewer, like me, becomes an explorer, and one who experiences and discovers things about herself that she’s known but been too afraid to articulate. I hope in this way the viewer, like me, will be changed by her exploration, changed by the film. I hope the viewer is, like me, a different person when the film ends.
And when we edit, we take care to leave enough space for the viewer to explore the many layers in each scene, but we also retain control, translating my long journey making the film into a single experience for the audience – that is, we create a waking dream, with all the dramatic tension that dreams always have (you have never been bored while dreaming!) We create a dream, but one that wakes you from your slumber through its incandescent illumination.
This is how I strive to create work that strives for the universal, opens a space for activism, and makes, hopefully, a lasting impact.
This is part of a series of blog posts ahead of the announcement of the winners of the BRITDOC Impact Award, which celebrates annually the documentary films that have made the greatest positive impact on society. www.britdocimpactaward.org