In 1988, Errol Morris took ownership of a truth.
Morris had set out to make a documentary about Dr. James Grigson. Grigson was a court psychiatrist whose testimony had helped put over 100 inmates on death row. A fascinating subject, for sure. But in his interviews with the doctor and with the inmates against whom Grigson had testified, Morris grew suspicious of the subject, and specifically, developed concerns about one particular case. Errol Morris went back to the drawing board and refocused his film’s ambition.
Morris chased his instinct to its furthest conclusion and used his film to present his own case, built of his own collected evidence. He applied re-enactments to visually showcase the court testimony of witnesses in the case (the genesis of a method with which we are today so intimately familiar). The film Morris ultimately ended up making and releasing—a film that is now as influential and respected as any documentary—was The Thin Blue Line. After the film’s release, the case was re-opened and Randall Dale Adams was found innocent and freed from death row.
Move ahead a near quarter century. In 2012, Errol Morris and fellow documentary powerhouse Werner Herzog were shown just a preview for the film The Act of Killing, directed by Josh Oppenheimer and co-directed by Christine Cynn and a co-director who still cannot safely reveal his identity.
Early on, Oppenheimer, Cynn, and their anonymous partner were attempting to collect interview footage about the 1965-66 anti-communist purge in Indonesia, an event that resulted in over 500,000 deaths. The initial plan of the filmmakers was to interview survivors and the families of victims. Standard fare, in terms of documentaries about historical atrocities. But there was a twist to this particular instance. The perpetrators of this systematic slaughter were never brought to justice because they remain in power. Some of the victims and their families were not talking openly to the filmmakers. So, the film crew sought out the committers—those executioners of the genocidal act who still held powerful position within the society. What they found was an astonishing revelation. The members of the death squad were willing to talk, and when they did, they expressly confessed their love for American film.
So the directors shifted gears, slammed the brakes, pulled a 360, and drove into a tornado.
They offered their film equipment to the death squad survivors and asked them to film recreations of what happened.
After watching the preview, both Morris and Herzog expressed strong sentiments of support and encouragement. Both also volunteered to be Executive Producers of the film. And both have since stated, in similar terms, that there is no movie like this one. Their strong endorsement is the reason I can assuredly extend that same promise to readers: You have never seen anything like this movie.
I’d like to think Morris immediately noted the similarities in the necessity-for-truth that shaped both his and Oppenheimer’s film. Like Morris, Oppenheimer switched subjects at the influence of artistic intuition. He abandoned his initial concern to pursue a more fruitful and imperative truth—one that required intervention, manipulation, biased intent.
Morris’s decision ended with a movie that saved a life and continues to influence television and film.
Oppenheimer’s movie will likely accomplish far more than that.
In 2008, the mostly-animated masterpiece Waltz with Bashir, the most beautiful and insightful documentary of the 2000s, missed out on the Oscar for Best Documentary through a technicality. At least then, the committee had fine print to lean on. In 2014, their offenses are double and unprotected. Not only was the decision made to award 20 Feet from Stardom (a fine enough film, but a film about backup singers) instead of The Act of Killing, but the nomination list excluded the brave and touching Stories We Tell. If the rules allowed documentaries to compete for Best Picture (shouldn’t the Best Movie be the best movie?), a case could have been made that Stories We Tell or The Act of Killing deserved to walk away with the top prize of the night. I believe they are the first and second best movies of 2013, but don’t ask me to pick the order.
I’ll admit that after Oppehnheimer’s loss, I was livid. To the point that it took me a little time to settle back into a calm place where I could again accept that The Academy Awards are just one available metric for great films. Once there, I began to view the omissions from a more informative perspective. While there is no way to concretely know the reasons behind the committee’s decision making (Crash, really?), their worst decisions have always served as a catalyst of great film conversation through third party attack and defense.
Amongst the charges leveraged against all three of these snubbed documentaries, and in particular against The Act of Killing, is a distaste and distrust for the methodology – the interference with the subject. For those farthest out on the ideological purist edges, those of the extreme cinema verite school of thought, the purpose the documentary is to observe. To these fringe film thinkers, the camera should be a quiet fly on the wall as to allow the viewer to forget its presence. A documentarian stepping in front of the camera, adding voiceover, allowing his/her voice to appear through interviews—to those in pursuit of documented fact, all of these events indicate a form of disruptive deceit. So one can imagine that academic camp’s reaction to a film that is focused on a truth completely manufactured by its director. The Act of Killing is, on the most superficial level, a film by Oppenheimer about the filming that Oppenheimer commissioned. Oppenheimer has a full, layered monopoly on the truth of this movie and it is truth.
Film is a form of language. And all language, just by existing, shares a complex contract with truth. If you were to describe this chair to another person, you might describe it as a “high chair.” You might choose instead to call it a “tall chair.” Neither adjective assignment is inaccurate. Both descriptions offer a form of truth, each not in conflict with the other. The selection of the descriptive term (the signifier) does not influence the factual existence of the chair (the signified), but rather, establishes a subjective reality within communication. One may have a subjective purpose for describing the chair a chosen way, and that intention is as real as the purpose the speaker does not have.
Let’s extend to film this investigation through example and imagine an instance in which a filmmaker wanted to present, through film, a truth about a fish. Instead of words, that filmmaker is now using the language of captured image and sound. If he/she shoots the fish from the riverbank down through the surface of the stream, he/she is presenting an image of separation, a distinct perspective highlighting the truth of the fish’s being another species and existing in another ecological environment. If the camera is held on the riverbed beneath the fish, the fish would look larger, empowered. Film the fish within a fish tank and the stated truth is that the fish is domesticated, a pet. An image of the fish out of water creates an entire sympathetic narrative. In this sense, the initial act of filming the fish is a calculation that dodges the notion of objective truth. The decision to film is in itself the beginning of an objective influence of truth, if not a truth itself. The same could be said about the decision to share the film.
Yet, even with applied logic and a diagrammed example, the point is hard to argue when, just in the modern era of mainstream documentary, the method of strict withdrawn and objective observation has put forth one of the greatest films of all time in Hoop Dreams. And obtrusive, self-righteous filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have positioned themselves in the forefront of the counter-method and constantly in front of their own cameras, poisoning the truth of their hypotheses with a need to have it filtered shallowly through feigned martyrdom.
But I would caution anyone going into The Act of Killing to forget any assumed standard, historical or contemporary, because, again, there has never been a film like this one.
When a middle aged citizen speaks openly to members of the death squad that killed his father when he was a child, laughing as he tells the story of finding his dad’s lifeless body under a half-cut barrel, and then proceeds to cry when the killers join in on his laughter, we are offered a measurement of the power of human grief and of the mind’s capacity for suppressing it. That is a truth.
When the recreated chaos of a village massacre inspires a brooding killer to reflect with bemusement on his preference for raping fourteen year old girls; when the fake violence is too intensely realized and the actors within the massacre—men, women, children—start erupting into fits of shaking and bawling, and this same man sits stone faced and bored, we are provided a ruler with which to measure human evil as it can live with or without institutional support. That is a truth.
The implication of first-world and American responsibility for this genocide? That is a truth. When viewers are forced to measure themselves against evil upon the discovery that mass murderers love movies in the very same way. That is a truth. And the implicit call to action, the subtext that we have an obligation to bring war criminals to justice whether they are the winners or losers. That is an absolute truth.
The Act of Killing concludes with a haunting shot of Anwar Congo, the founder of a paramilitary institution who is celebrated throughout his country for murders so numerous he cannot count them. Congo is walking around on a rooftop, recounting some of his murders, first with pride, then a hint of guilt, and then silence. When we see him begin to literally gag on his guilt, we are offered the possibility that at the baseline of the human soul exists mechanisms of conscience bigger than our cultures’ rules. It feels like, somehow, this is a compromised, internal form of punishment. We hope that is a truth.
On March 2, 2014, the night the error in collective voting judgment was made and The Act of Killing lost the Best Documentary category, Steve McQueen’s respectable 12 Years a Slave went home with the Academy Award for Best Picture. McQueen’s harsh treatise on slavery has a focused, inobtrusive camera and a secondary concern with narrative. The ambition in 12 Years a Slave is to take a naked look at the ugliness of the slavery institution that exists in American history; it is a forced and focused tool of witness designed to assault the modern historical perspective. A fly on the wall of history. In that sense, McQueen’s film at times applies the uninvolved, cinema verite philosophy that might disqualify the content of The Act of Killing.
12 Years a Slave is a good and successful film. It deserves the place in history carved by its winning Best Picture. But The Act of Killing surpasses it in every shared ambition. Oppenheimer’s is a better investigation of a historical event, it is a better exploration of the bottom level of human potential, and, thanks to editing and manipulation and calculative presentation of fact, it is a more enlightening and entertaining movie.
View these two films back-to-back in close chronology (as I did, incidentally) and measure the weight of McQueen’s sort of facts against Oppenheimer’s sort of truth. Then ask yourself which holds more value.
Ask Randall Dale Adams.
In 2005, Werner Herzog released his documentary Grizzly Man, a film in which the legendary filmmaker and documentarian explored and biographically framed Timothy Treadwell, a man killed and partially eaten by the bears he loved and swore to protect. Near the end of the film, Herzog is given the opportunity to listen to the audio of the tape that incidentally caught the bear attack. Herzog deliberately denies the viewer exposure to the audio; what we see instead is Herzog listening with a pair of headphones. His reaction is enough.
This is just a small two minute segment of a larger film that employs much more blatantly manipulative techniques. But for me, this short scene also marks one of the singular and essential moments in the history of the documentary film. Herzog’s reaction is one of genuine horror, followed by concern. He instructs Treadwell’s friend to destroy the tape and this appeal stands as an asserted distinction that, while the tape shows factual reality, there is no human need for it. In later interviews, Herzog walked back on the knee-jerk reaction, but the moment itself is documented. Here, the documentarian serves as the buffer, the artist’s hands within the clay of fact, the element of human conscience and consciousness that needs to inform both ends of any communicated truth. What kind of film might this have become if truth were given a license to drive itself? Exposure to that biological but gruesome mortal event might have presented facts, but none that would contribute to the film’s function toward a purpose of benefiting human viewers: it would not educate, entertain, enlighten, or reveal. Nature, tragedy, existence, historical atrocities—these are subjects, not teachers. Finding a useful truth requires a team effort, a contract between an attentive audience and an insightful yet manipulative instructor.
For me, Herzog’s brief scene creates a full text, an academic study on the benefit of and need for licensing our filmmakers to take liberties with truth, to manipulate or create truth for our entertainment, education, and experience. For years, I’ve thought these two minutes of Grizzly Man served as the best evidence to support documentary filmmakers in decisions to include themselves within their subjects. I still think that. But if Herzog’s film is a significant text, then The Act of Killing is the entire full field of study, the graduate level program and beyond, a work so complex and profound that its ideas and discourse might outlast its medium. If this is what can be accomplished by a documentarian intervening on his/her subject, then I’m inclined to leave the objective and unobtrusive lens for the security cameras and closed circuit television.