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The below published article is a preview of a longer piece written for Film Quarterly. In it, noted BBC Commissioning Editor and documentary film authority Nick Fraser comments on The Act of Killing, a film that has attracted supporters, garnered awards and been named to the 2014 Oscars shortlist. As film festival co-panelists, Fraser and I have debated documentaries, including The Act of Killing. For our diverse reasons, neither of us is among the film’s admirers. For my part, I’ve watched the film five times, each time trying to find something about it that would reverse my opinion that The Act of Killing is a degradation of the documentary genre. I have not found redeeming qualities. My specific criticisms are expressed in my review — in which I quote a comment Fraser made to me during one of the discussions we had about The Act of Killing. As you’ll see, Fraser’s feelings about the film are as strong as mine. I find his comments to be fascinating, insightful and right on target. They are very worthy of widespread attention. Fraser graciously sent the preview to me for publication.



By my own, not quite reliable reckoning, I’ve been asked to show The Act of Killing on the BBC at least five times. I have some difficulty in responding to its many admirers – not because my responses are hard to explain but because they appear so out of tune with the prevailing chorus of praise. And I have watched the film repeatedly. After a film-maker whose views I respect told me I should see the film on a big screen, I did so. But I found that I was put off not just by being told by the film-makers that I would find the experience upsetting, but by the ritual odour of self-approbation I could sense among members of the audience. Yes, there are people who imagine that the proximity of impunity confers some sort of wisdom. I can understand such feelings, but I’m not sure I want to share them.

Questioning Aesthetic and Moral Premise

So let me now be as upfront as I can. I dislike the aesthetic or moral premise of The Act of Killing. I find myself deeply opposed to the film. Getting killers to script and re-stage their murders for the benefit of a cinema or television audience seems to me to be a bad idea for a number of reasons. I find the scenes in the film 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. Something not very good is being done.

I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing Jews. Think of other half-covered up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, wherever you like – imagine that similar films had been made. Think for a moment, and consider what response might have made to such efforts. And now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass unnoticed.

Do We Believe in Good Taste?

To entertain such considerations is to risk being being labelled as a contemporary prude, or dismissed as stuffy. Do we believe in good taste? The Act of Killing convinced me that we should do. It is, certainly, tasteless to involve anyone in a re-rendering of Born Free – especially when the ditty is put at the service of a vision of heaven or Elysium where killers and their victims can be reconciled. No-one should be asked to sit through repeated demonstrations of the art of garrotting, even in the picturesque circumstances of suburban Indonesia. I may be alone in finding the vomiting noises finally made at the end of the film by Anwar Congo, dude and grandfatherly murderer, wholly inadequate as an expression of self-recognition or guilty feelings; but I somehow doubt that this is so.

But I have more fundamental objections to the repeated use of these devices. Whatever the film-makers’ intentions (these are said, certainly to be noble, not just by themselves, but also by such film culture aristos as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog) they do not in any recognizable sense enhance our knowledge of the 1960s Indonesian killings, or indeed (as if that were possible, and as if, after all the disputes over Hannah Arendt’s legacy, that could be taken seriously) our familiarity with the metaphysics of evil. They obscure the real merits of the film – the curiosity when it comes to uncovering the Indonesian cult of anticommunism capable of masking atrocity, and the good and shocking scenes with characters from the Indonesian elite, still whitewashing the past. Instead of an investigation, or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.

the-act-of-killingAnything Should Be Given A Chance

What I like most about documentary film is that anything that can be made to work should be given a chance. You can mix up fact and fiction, past and present. You can add to the cold objective look a degree of empathy. You will of course lie to reluctant or recalcitrant or reluctant participants, in particular when they wish not to divulge important pieces of information. And trickery has it place, too. But documentary 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. But 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.

I know people who find the trickery in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah offensive. I find the long interview conducted in a Tel Aviv barber’s shop with Abraham Bomba, in which the latter recounts how he once cut the hair of the women from his village as they went to be gassed, as sublime as it is painful. You can hear Lanzmann tell Bomba that he must go on with his story while he cuts hair, and, despite Lanzmann’s journalistic intrusiveness, comprehend that Bomba must recall these things on our behalf. If he doesn’t, there will be no-one left to tell them. No-one will be able to grasp the paradox expressed in Shoah, and true in relation to every atrocity, that we have to comprehend the proximity of everything that we cannot understand. It isn’t fair to make any comparisons between Lanzmann’s dark, obsessive, life-altering masterpiece and The Act Of Killing, but one might observe that unlike Shoah the latter never gets much further than the long and laborious contemplation of its own methodology.

The Praise is Questionable

In his bizarrely flattering piece defending The Act of Killing (of which he is an executive producer) Morris compares the film to Hamlet’s inspired use of theatre to reveal dirty deeds at the court of Denmark. But Hamlet doesn’t really believe that theatrical gestures can stand in for reality. Nor, we must assume, did his creator. A more apt, less flattering analogy than Morris’ comes from Shakespaeare’s darkest play Macbeth. What would we think if Macbeth and his scheming wife were written out of the action, replaced by all those low level thugs paid to do bad business on their behalf? We might conclude that putting them center stage, in the style of The Act of Killing, was indeed perverse, and we’d be right.

How should we attempt to describe what we consider to be ultimate acts of inhumanity. Among the problems posed by The Act of Killing is whether we understand them at all. In a piece published in the Columbia School of Journalism Review, praising The Act of Killing, Michael Meyer suggests that we’ve become inured to mass murder through the conventions of journalism, with its predictable good/bad moral judgements. He concludes that one answer to this problem might be the acknowledgment , in the style of The Act of Killing, of a ‘messy moral universe’ in which audiences are left to draw their own conclusions.

I can accept as uncontroversial the need for us all to draw our own conclusions. More difficult to bear is the idea that we should all, as film-makers or consumers, make a habit of standing aside from bad things so that others can be made to comprehend them. The real problem surrounding the depiction of atrocity was first identified by Arthur Koestler in 1944, in a prescient piece published in the New York Times, entitled On Disbelieving Atrocities. Koestler was among the first people to have gained knowledge of the slaughter of Eastern European Jews, and he estimated that the effect of such revelations was strictly limited, lasting only minutes or days, and swiftly overcome by indifference. Koestler believed you could succeed in informing people only if you went on screaming, and he went on to do this, successfully, for most of his life. There is no single way of countering indifference. All we can really do, messily or not, is insist that things happened. Numbers are important here as much as perpetrators. The lives of victims require reclaiming from oblivion if we are to make any sense of what happened.

There are still half-forgotten, heavily whitewashed atrocities from the last century– such as the World War Two Bengali famine allowed to occur through the culpably racist inattention of British officials, the never wholly cleared up question of Franco’s mass killings, or indeed the slaughter of so many millions, in the 1950s seizure of power, the Great Leap Forward as well as the Cultural Revolution as a consequence of Mao’s catastrophic utopianism.

Those wondering how to record such events will no doubt watch The Act of Killing. But I hope they will also look at less hyped, more modestly conceived depictions of mass murder. In Enemies Of The People (2010), the Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath goes after the murderers of the Khmer Rouge. He finds Pol Pot’s sidekick, but it is Sambath’s earnest, touching quest that lingers in the mind rather than the somewhat empty encounters with evildoers. Atrocity is both banal, in a wholly human sense, and ultimately impossible to comprehend. This implies a vision of the world with which we can all, whether we like it or not, identify. What else is there better to scream about?

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