By: Sofija Melnikaite & Luke Blackett – This article is associated with the screening of the documentary “The Act of Killing”, an event hosted by the Psychology Society (17.11.14). For more information, see below
“Documentary filmmaking has to move away from the fact-based movies, because facts per se do not constitute truth… otherwise the Manhattan phone directory would be the book of books, four million entries, every single one factually correct. Mr Jonathan Smith, his address and telephone number can be verified. But whether he has nightmares, or whether he cries into his pillow at night we do not know and that’s where filmmaking has to move.” – Werner Herzog
The word conventional in documentary filmmaking is rapidly losing all meaning, the genre is going through somewhat of a revolution. Gone are the days when it was enough to simply record and chronicle a series of events, to the point where many a BBC Four programme looks stale. Instead, replacing the simple resuscitation of facts, is a new wave of documentary forms all looking to enter into the minds of their subjects.
The Act of Killing is a masterpiece in this respect, at the very forefront of this movement and perhaps its finest and most defining exampleyet. Joshua Oppenheimer chooses the subject of the Indonesian 1965-66 genocide, an already fascinating topic considering its horrifying nature, its unfamiliarity by and large with a western audience and the oddity of its aftermath.
Oppenheimer chooses to focus not on the victims but the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, and invites the leaders of the death squads to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favourite film genre. What we get is a surreal and yet utterly captivating insight into how these idolised murderers look back on the history they have written. Hauntingly is the way these men show so little remorse 40 years on, the relish to which they take to detailing every single aspect of actions that left more than 500,000 dead.
As Errol Morris puts it; “Whatever documentary is, it is not adult education; presumably it is an art form where we are trying to communicate something about the real world. There is a journalistic component but its journalism plus something more than journalism… you are exploring the idea of something”.
Psychologically speaking, one starts by wondering how community of survivors can live in a society with the perpetrators remaining pillars of the society. But as Morris observes, that something more than journalism, enables the viewers to see through detailed boastfulness of perpetrators’ reminiscences, through their bizarre obsession with Hollywood gangsters, through the denial. Soon one starts wondering how these exterminators live with themselves, what stories they tell themselves to escape from their past. One of the subjects acknowledges that night terrors follow killing people, but the question remains as to how one finds the right excuses to reach salvation?
At times it seems that the story Joshua Oppenheimer is so skilfully portraying could only have happened on an isolated island somewhere far away; so primitive, yet sophisticated its surrealism is. Nonetheless, at times it is impossible not to wonder if some distorted perceptions of western culture might have influenced our gangsters’ crimes. You are left with a seed of doubt somewhat unconvinced if Oppenheimer’s perpetrators have finally understood their actions.
That it was nominated in the Academy Awards, won a BAFTA and received praise almost universally from critics, featuring on many a best of the year list, tells you just how unique this piece is. Indeed Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) two of the most respected documentary filmmakers both signed on to be executive producers after having seen the work.
If you haven’t had a chance to see The Act of Killing then UCLU Film & TV Society in collaboration with UCL Psychology Society is showing it at a special screening in the Bloomsbury Theatre; which will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director Joshua Oppenheimer and a panel of psychological and anthropological professors discussing the film and it’s subject matter.
The Act of Killing: Screening and Q&A
Monday, 17th November 7pm
Tickets available from http://www.thebloomsbury.com