Thoughts On: The Act Of Killing (2012) & Waltz With Bashir (2008)
The exposure of gangsters committing mass killings for the Indonesian government. An exploration of lost memories of Lebanon War of the early 80s.
Two phenomenal films. The Act Of Killing is one of the greatest achievements in documentary ever – undeniably so. It transcends an idea of performance, character and truth that is ever obvious in documentary to purely baffle the viewing audience. So, without flinching, with deception, with comedy, with a confounding sense of fun, we’re forced into the lives of ‘free men’ who defy any predetermined senses of morality you may take into this film. Waltz With Bashir is also a film that captures a sense of ‘documentation’ that is beyond simple notions of character, performance a truth. In such, the objective observation in this documentary is of the memory and perception of history – never really the history of itself. This galvanises the narrative with an almost impenetrable perspective and idiosyncratic grip on truth. What we then see with these two films is a play with the form of documentary under the guise of a famous definition proposed by John Grierson:
The creative treatment of actuality
What this definition of documentary embraces is the inevitable contrivance and construction of cinema. Though there is an impulse and will to capture reality, actuality, in documentary, this is simply not possible. The reason why is tantamount to an observer effect. The observer effect suggests that the measurement of certain materials can contort and invalidate the results gathered. This is most prevalent in quantum physics. If you wanted to measure an electron, to observe where it is around a nucleus, you are going to need light. However, because the electron is so incommunicably small, even a photon, a package of light, will effect it, give it energy, hence ‘moving’ it or forcing it to change position. Another more accessible example of the observer effect can be imagined if you wanted to measure the temperature of a glass of icy water. To do this, you will obviously need a thermometer. However, imagine someone held that thermometer over an open flame for a few minutes to the point that it was searing hot. If you put this in the glass of icy water, you cannot expect to read an accurate temperature as the searing thermometer would be heating the water as you try to measure its temperature. And such is the observer effect that sees tools of measurement as invalidating devices. A camera is then a social ‘searing thermometer’; it is an illuminating photon to your subject, the electron. What this says about ‘truth’ in cinema is that there can only be a postmodern consideration of the term. That is to say that ‘truth’ is relative to an audience or artist – it is not objective.
If we look to the subjects of the films at hand, we can delve deeper into this. The Act Of Killing is about corruption, murder and the enforcement of ‘law’ through gangs in Indonesia. If you let the Indonesian government report to you this history, you would get, as is suggested and shown in the film, propaganda. We see this throughout history. Look to Soviet and Nazi filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and you will see immensely ingenious artists. But, despite their mastery and command of form, their ‘creative treatment of actuality’ is very skewed. On the other moral end of the stick, if we look to a filmmaker such as Michael Moore with Bowling For Columbine, we also see something tantamount to propaganda (biased information meant to promote a political agenda). You could easily see this approach applied to The Act Of Killing with a constant affirmation of morality and condemnation of characters. However, there is a distance at which we’re held at throughout this narrative as Oppenheimer allows his characters to tell their own stories – which ultimately defies this kind of reading. We see this in Waltz With Bashir as well; there is never really a transparent agenda presented in this film, much rather, a will to go on a journey and discover the past. And in such, we do get a sense of objectivity, as we do in The Act Of Killing with the gangsters telling their own story, in Waltz With Bashir. However, the objectivity garnered from documenting perspective and performance is not very pure.
When we begin to consider this impossible idea of ‘truth’ and ‘purity’ we can run into trouble. For example, though we have outlined that documentary is creative, is contrived and constructed, we have to consider reality itself to truly grasp why there is no truth or purity. In such, we should zoom in on the idea of performance.
One of the strongest and most compelling arguments you can conjure in support of truth in documentary is the idea that we are all performing – always. What this suggests is that, if you were to sit down and talk with your mother, you would both be playing roles. You would be the son or daughter and she would be the mother. And because of this, you can imagine that she will talk to you, and you will talk to her, in a way that you wouldn’t talk to your father, you friends, your partner or a stranger. This suggests that your mother and you are lying to one another. However, to use a term such as ‘lying’ would be awfully melodramatic and unnecessary as the label and role of ‘mother’, ‘son’, ‘friend’, ‘father’ and ‘stranger’ is mutually decided. That is to suggest that you both agree, in silent social gestures, that you are ‘this’ and I am ‘that’. And from this agreement cannot come a suggestion of a lie as, even though the roles we play are taken without much recognition or exposition, they are somewhat transparent, accessible and democratic. To now suggest that a camera and a person can have a social relationship, we can begin to consider that performances in documentary are genuine, are truthful, because, if in place of the camera was a person, there would still be a performance.
This observation will suggest to someone that an idea of truth in documentary is certainly accessible. However, the basis of this assumption is that truth can exist without a camera – this is not accurate. So, whilst you and your mother are not lying to each other in behaving in a manner that your relationship dictates and preserves, you are communicating in a contrived atmosphere created by yourselves. And because truth is objectivity, there cannot be this construction, and so the latent relationship without a camera isn’t pure or truthful – nor will it be with a camera injected into the mix. This all suggests a concept of solipsism and existential isolation, which are, objectively, inevitabilities. What this suggests is that I am trapped in my own head with my own perspective, opinion and outlook – just as every other human and conscious being is. Everything with this subjective perception then essentially lives in a different universe to the person next to them. Whilst we can transcend this divide with science, when we mean to communicate the inquantifiable and subjective, we are inevitably left with the task of communicating to others the state of our personal shade of the universe or reality.
Documentary is a cinematic and blatant extension of this paradigm. Whilst narrative has the same intention of communicating a personal shade of reality (as all art and communication does), documentary does not mean to just present one shade; it is a format that is supposed to serve as a platform for multiple people to project a personal perspective. This of course happens in varying degrees. For example, in The Act Of Killing, Oppenheimer steps back and lets his characters tell their own story for the most part. So, whilst Oppenheimer does frame these stories and facilitate this projection, he does so sparingly of his own perception. A similar thing can be said with Waltz With Bashir. Dreams and contorted memory are the subject of this documentary, and so we can clearly see the attempt to give creative rights over to multiple characters. However, the animation somewhat shatters this as it is so contrived – and so leaves the film sullied by the hand of an artist.
This explicit projection of multiple perspectives is the common trend throughout all documentary. The same thing occurs in narrative film with many artists (writer, director, actor, cinematographer) projecting a perspective. But, all of these perspectives are funnelled through fantasy. Documentary funnels multiple human perspectives through ‘reality’ – through events that are not pre-planned and heavily constructed. With this definition of documentary, you can attain a sense of peace and balance with the form of documentary. However, we have left out one significant detail: you. Whilst there are these many perspectives being projected through film that are unified by the concept of ‘documentary’ or ‘cinema’, these are tangible materials and events (DVDs, Blu-Rays, screenings) that cannot just be slotted into an audience’s psyche. A documentary has to be viewed, has to be subjected to a plethora of personal shades of reality. And herein lies the futility of documentary. Despite intention, films will always be re-contextualised. This, whilst the point and purpose of films attempting to ask questions and propose ideas to an audience, is a troubling concept when you truly question the intention of a filmmaker. Why say anything if your words are only going to be put through a blender?
This is an especially prevalent question with The Act Of Killing and Waltz With Bashir that both Oppenheimer and Folman handle masterfully. Going into these films, you may be inclined to think that they’re about history, politics, violence and government. This is far from their purpose, however. If you go into these films thinking you are going to see the creative treatment of history, reality or actuality, you will certainly miss their point. This, however, is my personal opinion. There are elements in both of these films that suggest that they mean to provide rhetoric or commentary, which you can use to argue against this idea. We see this in The Act Of Killing with the tone provided by the fact we know that this is a deceptive piece – one that many will use to comment on politics, government and history. We also see rhetoric and commentary in Waltz With Bashir with the ending that jumps from animation and into reality. There are two interpretations of this juxtaposition of traditional documentary form that utilises archive footage and animation. The first is that it is meant to validate Folman’s (and others’) memories. In such, it says that, yes, there was a massacre and it was remembered accurately (though ambiguously so) down to the detail of a girl’s head amongst rubble. (On a side note, you could possibly suggest that this validates nothing as the soldier who claimed to have seen the girl may have seen this footage on the news and have subconsciously implemented that into his memory). However, the second interpretation of this jump into the real world would be that this is the purpose of the narrative: whilst we are constantly subjected to imagery like this in historical documentaries and in the news, the precursing animated journey was there to add context and set you up for familiar material that you should be newly sensitive to.
It is the second interpretation of this final scene in Waltz With Bashir that cites the inescapable futility of documentary when considered under objective terms, however. We see this, too, in The Act Of Killing. If we are supposed to view this entire film as a negative commentary on all characters, then I believe that it loses so much of its poignancy and weight. This is because, if there is only negative commentary meant to be seen in watching both of these films, I somehow watched them ‘wrong’. What I mean to suggest by this is that I enjoyed the both films as character pieces that humanise those how are easily demonised – and even found them fun at some points. (This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen). That means, though this may seen insensitive and immoral to some, I perceive The Act Of Killing as a film not too distant from Goodfellas and Waltz With Bashir a film not too different from Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. I enjoy all of the films mentioned because I get to exist on the side of the soldiers and gangsters – I do not hate nor condemn them for the most part, instead enjoy their presence. That means I hold a lack of judgement going The Act Of Killing and Waltz With Bashir. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a moral opinion on what the gangsters and soldiers do, just that I view these films from a distance that doesn’t have me feel the negative commentary I’m maybe supposed to.
There are two views one can take on this. The first is that this is fine. However, the second is that I’ve become desensitised to media and film and so refuse to see the commentary, truth and reality of a documentary such as The Act of Killing or Waltz With Bashir. I find this to be an incredibly poor argument as it suggests that I should be sensitive and highly reactive to graphic content. We can look to The Act Of Killing to see exactly why this is a faulted position. Both Herman and Anwar were once babies – children we can assume were once afraid of murder, death and violence. Whilst there is the argument that maybe some people are born killers, we shall leave this out of the debate for the sake of simplicity. So, through murder and contextual affirmation, Herman and Anwar were sensitised to ‘the act of killing’. This is a human behaviour tantamount to learning where and when to pick your nose – it’s all about social conduct. This paradigm is present in me and all of those watching graphic media; the more we watch graphic media or happenings, the less attached we will become because it becomes banal or normalised. This is the reality of a world with a 24 hour news cycle, YouTube, Live Leak and a plethora of other media services. You cannot say to people who live in this context that they should be more sensitive, just like you cannot tell Herman and Anwar that they should feel bad for killing people.
However, Oppenheimer puts these gangsters, Anwar especially, on a journey towards revelation. He could not have done this with explicit commentary or commands, he had to allow these feelings to arise in his characters, in large part, on their own. The exact same approach should be applied to an audience. If you want them to see the world like you do, you cannot expect them to already be sensitive to matters; you cannot assume or demand they do not see The Act Of Killing or Waltz With Bashir in a similar manner in which they may view a Hollywood blockbuster. Both Oppenheimer and Folman demonstrate this respect for and understanding of their audience with the use of unreliable narrators and openly biased perspectives. In such, we are made to see the comedy, satire, banality and flippancy of murder in The Act Of Killing or war during Waltz With Bashir – often with references to old gangster pictures, noirs and Bogart or films like Apocalypse Now, with the surfing, and Full Metal Jacket, with the sniper. This allows an audience to digest a film from a genuine standpoint. In such, if you enjoy Goodfellas, you’ll probably enjoy The Act Of Killing – and this is ok. If you dislike Goodfellas and its presentation of morality, you’ll react in a similar manner to The Act Of Killing – which is ok. Nonetheless, it cannot be mistaken or overlooked that these are films about an antagonist’s (questionable protagonist’s) perspective. And in such will come a journey towards a more versatile truth. So, just as Anwar was made to see his ways as Oppenheimer presumably him wanted to, so will an audience. With time and subtlety, I was then allowed to form my own view of both of these films – one that obviously recognised that most of these events weren’t completely fun or comedic – that had greater scope and nuance than a simple ‘they were bad guys’. This wasn’t done by Oppenheimer and Folman with explicit suggestion or demands (expository V.O or moral affirmation) much rather a framing and re-framing of the past through reenactment. We see a very similar process in Waltz With Bashir as dreams and memory are framed and re-framed by interviews and animation. And this is what makes these pictures complex, confounding, controversial and so uniquely powerful.
What both of The Act Of Killing and Waltz With Bashir then do so excellently is not only embrace the idea that actuality is being given a creative treatment, but also the concept that representing history, a time, a place or an event has a futile downside: the audience’s own biases. To overcome this futility, both Oppenheimer and Folman objectively project the perspective of their subjects, not the events, history, places or time. With this comes a subtlety and dexterity that knows an audience will perceive their own relative truth – but one that may be guided by the filmmaker themselves, hence giving them purpose and a reason to try and say something.
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