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Focusing on Killers Doesn't Make "The Act of Killing" "Snuff"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 25, 2014 at 1:09PM

Critics complain Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary ignores the victims of Indonesian mass murder. That's because its goal is to prevent there being more of them.
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"The Act of Killing"
"The Act of Killing"

Although it's not widely predicted to win an Oscar on Sunday, Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" is the dark-horse favorite, the movie whose admirers most passionately want it to win. It's the polar opposite of "20 Feet From Stardom," the joyous, sloppily organized portrait of once-forgotten backup singers; "20 Feet" leaves you with a song in your heart; "The Act of Killing" leaves you needing a stiff drink.

So it's not surprising that "Killing" has its detractors, although it's surprising who some of them are. Nonfics' Christopher Campbell and about.com documentary guide Jennifer Merin have been among its knowledgeable detractors, as has Nick Fraser, a commissioning editor for the BBC's "Storyville," whose latest salvo was published in the Guardian over the weekend. 

Fraser's argument is that in asking the men who perpetrated the mass purges of alleged Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s to tell, and restage, their own stories, "The Act of Killing"'s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer, has made "a high-minded snuff film." 

Getting killers to script and restage their murders for the benefit of a cinema or television audience seems a bad idea for a number of reasons. I find the scenes where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance. Of course murderers, flattered in their impunity, will behave vilely. Of course they will reliably supply enlightened folk with a degraded vision of humanity. But, sorry, I don't feel we want to be doing this. It feels wrong and it certainly looks wrong to me. Something has gone missing here. How badly do we want to hear from these people, after all? Wouldn't it be better if we were told something about the individuals whose lives they took?...

[D]ocumentary films have emerged from the not inconsiderable belief that it's good to be literal as well as truthful. In a makeshift, fallible way, they tell us what the world is really like. Documentaries are the art of the journeyman. They can be undone by too much ambition. Too much ingenious construction and they cease to represent the world, becoming reflected images of their own excessively stated pretensions.

Let's deal with the second assertion first. The idea that documentaries are rooted in "the not inconsiderable belief that it's good to be literal as well as truthful" is shockingly, indisputably wrong, as someone with Fraser's experience in the field has to know. The earliest definition of documentary, put forth by documentary maker and producer John Grierson, was "the creative treatment of actuality," which is virtually the opposite of literalism. It's also important to note that for Grierson, at least initially, "documentary" was an adjective and not a noun -- a means of describing a film rather than categorizing it.

So why the misrepresentation? Because Oppenheimer's film actually falls squarely within the established tradition of cinema verite, as described by Edgar Morin and practiced by him and his filmmaker partner, Jean Rouch. Coming from an anthropological background, Rouch came to believe there was nothing more false, even dangerous, than a filmmaker eliding his own role in the filmmaking process, especially where the representation of a culture not his own was concerned. As Morin put it: "There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. In the same way, there were two ways to conceive cinema verite. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth."

"Posing the problem of truth" is a good description of what "The Act of Killing" does. Its setting is a society that has been ruled for half a century by the same forces that perpetrated the mass murders of the 1960s. Consequently there have been no war crimes trials, no truth and reconciliation commissions, only the persistent lionizing of the men who perpetrated the bloody deeds, and the bizarre distortion that the word "gangster," as they call themselves, translates as "free man." As Oppenheimer explained in his Guardian response to Fraser:

We developed the film's central concept – allowing perpetrators to make fiction scenes about the killings -- not as a trick to get these men to open up, but in response to their boastful openness, and as a means to understand its motives and consequences. Our "pitch" was straightforward: "You have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history," I would say. "I want to understand what it means to you and your society. You want to show me what you've done. So go ahead, in any way you wish. I will also film you and your fellow death-squad veterans discussing what you want to show and, just as importantly, what you want to leave out. In this way, we will be able to document what this means to your society, and what it means to you." I understood instinctively that if we could show how these men wished to be seen, we would also glimpse how they really see themselves, and the whole facade that genocide is heroic would come crumbling down.

It's ironic that Fraser, who is so concerned with the literal, would use the phrase "snuff" to describe a film in which no killings take place -- in which they are not, eventually, even reenacted. Crucially, Oppenheimer shows the killers describing their deeds, demonstrating their favored techniques, rehearsing and planning their own version of events, but never allows them to take over the film. It seems to have eluded even some of "The Act of Killing"'s most ardent defenders that not for an instant do we see only what they want us to see. 

Whether or not the subjects of a documentary "tell us anything of importance" is the most tedious and pedantic yardstick by which its artistic merit may be measured. What of "importance" would the victims -- who, incidentally, Oppenheimer spent years interviewing before deciding on "Act"'s method -- have to tell us? That they mourn the dead? That their lives were ruined? Or might they, as the movie's killers do, enlighten us as to the specific character of their own experience, and how it weighs on them, or doesn't, decades hence? It is a sentimental peculiarity of our own era that we think truth may be found only in the victims of horrific acts and not in the people and the societies that allowed or encouraged them. (See the "Wolf of Wall Street" debate.) But when it comes to understanding and, perhaps, preventing their terrible reoccurrence, perhaps the killers have more to tell us.


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