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It Came From Inside the House: Community, Criticism and The Act of Killing

For much of the past decade, one constant gripe within the world of documentary has been a need for more writing and better criticism about the craft of the filmmaking (as opposed to summaries of the plot or lionizations of the subject). So why have two recent, very critical op-ed pieces about The Act of Killing drawn such heat? The answer lies in both the source of the criticism and the method.

It’s certainly not uncommon for there to be debate about documentaries, and often that debate is most animated amongst members of the oft-mentioned documentary community: an alternately loose and bound affiliation of filmmakers, programmers, broadcasters, writers and assorted plus ones who find themselves in a kind of “minority solidarity” within the larger film world that is both perceived and real.

Even when there are divergent views about popular films, it’s not always common for that debate to become public. Numerous nonfiction films this past year inspired fairly intense back-and-forths over their methods, approach, bias or style, but few of those conversations made it into print or public discussion in a substantial way, both for better and for worse.

For one example, I’ve been witness to many critical conversations and subtweets related to the filmmaking in the popular SeaWorld documentary Blackfish, but little of that has filtered through to the public, where the film received nearly universal critical raves (98% on a certain site’s aggregate of critics), award nominations and shock when it failed to be up for an Oscar.

After another Oscar omission, Sarah Polley’s acclaimed Stories We Tell, there was talk that some doc branch members frowned upon the film’s use of recreations (or, more to the point, the fact that viewers may not have understood the scenes to be recreations), but nowhere did a prominent member of the documentary community outline these objections publicly. Instead of a cogent, public argument from another filmmaker or Academy member as to why they felt Stories misled or deceived, we heard in sotto voce that these recreations doomed the film’s chances. The whispering about what “some said” started to resemble an urban myth or elaborate telephone game.

If the filmmaking in these works provokes such differing response – and, if one takes the Stories reports truthfully, it’s completely a reaction to Polley’s artistic and filmmaking choices – then why, minus a handful of really smart critics and writers, aren’t we having these conversations more openly? What could be better for the art form than vigorous public debate? A more intelligent and reasoned approach to talking about nonfiction film, particularly in this age when the art form seems to be making such dramatic leaps – artistically, formally and technically – would seem to benefit all.

But the community as I’ve described it, is a small one, and it can be a challenge to know it well enough to cover it honestly, truthfully and factually.

During my five year run as a writer/blogger focused on the world of documentary film, I only occasionally wrote negatively about a film (I did not consider myself a critic) and almost only when I felt the film had raised such interesting issues about filmmaking that it required a conversation that presented more than one (often fawning) presentation of what a film was doing or attempting to do. Even so, writing critically was the worst part of that blogging experience, as sometimes the slings and arrows were aimed at work made by friends or by filmmakers/broadcasters who I admired. Still more often, I’d be admonished for what I’d written not by the filmmakers themselves but by their inner or outer circle. One industry veteran once took me to the woodshed with the caution that it was unseemly for one filmmaker to be criticizing another’s work so publicly.

I write this as prologue to say that I understand both the risks and the reasons why it’s often rare for us to have our private debates about a film in public spaces. In any given year, the seemingly universal positive consensus around films that have been Oscar nominated or box office smashes or jury prize awarded is belied by numerous conversations over beers and coffee and Gchat and twitter. The fact that we keep our issues mostly private may be seen as polite or cowardice; I’ll let you choose your description.

Our general sense of decorum on these topics makes what has happened in recent weeks surrounding the widely acclaimed Danish film The Act of Killing all the more surprising.

As someone who has been intimately engaged in the world of documentary for the past decade, I can’t remember a film that has provoked as many conversations, re-assessments, conflicted and passionate feelings as The Act of Killing does. Several people have checked in with me over time to talk about their shifting feelings about the film and what its filmmaking team accomplished (or tried to, depending on your view).

The reactions are not always pleasant or positive, but at the heart of their wrestling with their feelings about the film is a sense that the film is worth the trouble and the time to engage with it in a very real and complicated way.

As viewers and critics and programmers thought and talked about The Act of Killing, the film would start to garner a level of attention that few nonfiction films can hope to match: named Top Film (beating all other fiction and nonfiction features) in the Sight and Sound poll and The Guardian Film Awards, Best Documentary at the BAFTAs and one of only three films in history to have been nominated for each of the top annual awards for documentary (Academy, Spirits, Cinema Eye, IDA and Gothams).

Some have taken the overwhelming response to The Act of Killing as a sign that the film is nearly universally beloved, and it would be deceitful to argue that the film doesn’t have many passionate supporters who were knocked out by what they saw. I count myself among them.

But The Act of Killing doesn’t provoke the kind of swooning reaction that Man on Wire or even Exit Through the Gift Shop (perhaps the other most argued about nonfiction film of the past decade) generated, perhaps because it’s far darker than either of those works. My sense is that many if not most in the documentary community – even its most passionate fans – look at The Act of Killing as “the film that cannot be ignored”. The consensus amongst most, such as I can gather, is that this is a film of landmark importance and one that we will think of, talk of and be inspired by for years, if not decades, to come.

One would think such a film would be ripe for the kind of vigorous criticism and debate that could be a great benefit to the community. On the one hand, the intense response (on both sides) to two recent op-ed pieces, one by legendary broadcaster/producer Nick Fraser and one by filmmaker/scholar Jill Godmilow, confirms this notion that The Act of Killing is a film that we will continue to chew over.

But something about the Fraser and Godmilow pieces and the way they were simultaneously heckled and celebrated on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere seems to point to something else that is often little talked about in the documentary community, a massive shift in how we think about the documentary form that is generational, political and a stark reflection that we are no longer in a documentary world largely controlled by a handful of gatekeepers.

On the surface, part of the intense reaction to the two op-eds were due to the timing and the sources. Given that the film had been in theaters for months, had premiered more than a year and a half ago at the Toronto Film Festival, the timing would be surprising, even if these were negative pieces launched by film critics. Since these salvos were printed in the days surrounding the Oscars, one could only surmise that the authors hoped to derail that film’s (already against-the-odds) Best Documentary chances or to plant a virus in the film’s reputation as it reached the world’s biggest stage for film.

More surprising, given what I’ve said about our natural inclination to keep these discussions on the down low, was the fact that the two blistering critiques came not just from inside the house but from two important documentary figures who have, in the past, pushed filmmakers to abandon staid or traditional rules of how to make nonfiction films.

Fraser, in fact, is one of a handful of individuals who can lay claim to having created the current documentary landscape as we know it. The commissioning editor at BBC Storyville, Fraser has been a champion of hundreds of important films and has advanced the documentary form toward being a more cinematic artform as much or more than any other individual. He’s also a veteran of so many pitch forums, one-on-one consults and panels that his take-no-prisoners, tough love approach makes him a landmark in his own right: you haven’t really arrived until you’ve had Nick Fraser take apart your film and make you find a way to make it better.

Godmilow is a deep thinker and scholar who has pushed herself as a filmmaker to truly rethink the form of documentary. She created experimental and challenging works that would be groundbreaking even if they appeared first today. She also has been a leading film theorist, constantly pushing other filmmakers to think of new ways to engage their audience and to question what it is they are really doing in picking a particular subject.

Neither are shrinking violets, so the surprise was not their outspokenness.

You’d expect that Fraser and Godmilow would have interesting takes on a film that pushes the medium in ways that The Act of Killing does. Which makes it all the more remarkable, and frankly disappointing, that both have attacked the film – and here’s the rub – in ways so overheated and flailing that they have drawn more criticism and attention to themselves and their prescriptions for documentary than they have to what are, in fact, interesting and essential arguments that The Act of Killing should be sparking in anyone who cares about the present and future of nonfiction.

In their missives, Fraser and Godmilow both seem to be gobsmacked by how many people feel passionately about The Act of Killing. While Fraser admits that he has found a polarized reaction to the film (“I’ve never encountered a film greeted by such extreme responses – both those who say it is among the best films and those who tell me how much they hate it”), Godmilow seems to be incredibly disconnected from the day-to-day debates over the film, fretting that only Fraser and critic Jennifer Merin seem to share her negative view.

The reaction of many on social media who agreed with the pair suggested that those who felt negatively about the film saw themselves as an underserved minority. The articles were shared on social media with exclamations of “Finally!”, an industry stalwart wrote that Godmilow brilliantly articulated her own issues with the film and a filmmaker nominated against The Act of Killing for a year-end award re-tweeted the Fraser piece with the comment “I agree completely”.

The collective sense of “I’m not alone” in finally being able to voice their disapproval over the film suggested that critics must have felt nearly shamed into silence by those who felt so passionately positive about the film. The dam broke and suddenly people could admit their true feelings.

Perhaps with this sense that they are voices alone in the wilderness, fighting a tide of inappropriate praise and, per Godmilow, confused critics who were “flattering the film with platitudes,” both writers set out to educate the community (both critics and filmmakers who appear to have fallen under the spell of The Act of Killing) as to the errors of their ways. Unfortunately, both pieces were littered with wild rhetoric that usually tips off when someone has already lost the argument. Fraser’s Guardian piece was headlined “Don’t Give an Oscar to this Snuff Film” and Godmilow returned to familiar themes in her own writing, claiming Oppenheimer’s film was dangerous, was “killing the documentary” and asserted that the film is built “on a bedrock of pornography”.

The weighted language and the historic references that both used brought to mind in some readers an elder who couldn’t understand why the whippersnapper wasn’t getting rapped on the knuckles. The accusation because that both were out of touch or as one commenter noted, “This long diatribe reads like the death rattle of an old world order of documentary filmmaking.” Combined with some commenters on the Guardian piece who suggested Fraser needed to retire, film writer Anthony Kaufman warned of an age-ist reaction to both writers “as if the critique has something to do with Godmilow being some old fuddy-duddy filmmaker.”

But it’s not Fraser or Godmilow (or Jennifer Merin’s) age that makes their public protestations so disappointing, it’s that their arguments show how far removed they are from vital conversations about the art form that are happening within the documentary world. Godmilow wrote that she penned her critique to “start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none – not yet. It is up to us to learn from this film and work hard to avoid its miscalculations and mistakes.” That she seemed to truly believe that no critical dialogue had been taking place over the past year and a half surrounding The Act of Killing suggested that her disconnect from the current state of the community is near total.

One of the greatest developments in the current age of documentary filmmaking is an underlying assumption that there is no specific rulebook, that each of us is charged with wrestling with the documentary form in our own way. Some of us will be more successful than others, of course, but few feel constrained by dogma or the rules and views of a particular movement of filmmaking and less and less feel the need to fit within a specific political ideology. This particular view has been pushed by none other than Fraser, who says in his piece that what he likes “most about documentary film is that anything can be made to work, given the chance.”

That’s not to say that ethical concerns fly out the window; in fact, I find that filmmakers are even more engaged with the ethics of using real people and real situations because of the ways in which they attempt to re-think the medium. If you are strictly going by a list of instructions, you’d never or rarely have to contemplate the ways in which your subjects or situations are portrayed. The contradictions force filmmakers to think harder.

This is one of the things that astounded many about The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer’s intimacy with the main actors in his film – mass killers who participated in the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, now old men still feted in their own country for their “heroic deeds” – made many of us think not only about what happened 50 years ago, but made us question how “winning” or “losing” in war (or a coup) can mean the difference between being lauded for the rest of your life or being jailed, disgraced or killed. Like Polley’s film, Oppenheimer is interested in the stories we tell (here with the killers re-enacting their purge for a film) and what it would take for a society to stop looking askance at the atrocity in their own history.

But it’s the portrayal and participation of these actors that seems to bother Fraser and Godmilow (and many of those who agree with them) the most. “How badly do we want to hear from these people, after all?” Fraser asks. “Wouldn’t it be better if we were told something about the individuals whose lives they took?” An online commenter agreed, saying that The Act of Killing is “a disturbing film within (a) disturbing trajectory – the move from the traditional films about the victims of power, trying to empower the weak, to the ‘killer cinema’ of the perpetrators.”

Going further, Godmilow warns in her commands to filmmakers to consider exactly what they are doing by even examining these kind of situations in third world countries. Why, she wonders, is “there is no evidence in this film – and there should be – that the Indonesian people are capable of resistance to domination and terror”?

This seems to run to the core of complaints about the film and, while I disagree that this is a disturbing trajectory, it’s certainly worthy of public discussion because it’s becoming quite clear that we are seeing the beginnings of a backlash against knee-jerk liberal orthodoxy within documentary. Organizations that long supported issue advocacy films are turning toward films that emphasize journalism. Film critics are less likely to let “important” films off the hook if they fail as good cinema. You are beginning to see more films with lead subjects who may not be very heroic.

Both Fraser and Godmilow’s pieces – as well as others that complain that The Act of Killing lets Western audiences off the hook by not explicitly connecting the coup to the CIA and US government forces who were glad to see communism eliminated in the region – seem to be a reaction to the idea that The Act of Killing isn’t sufficiently pro-victim. Thus the fear that audiences and critics aren’t getting it or aren’t being made to feel complicit in or uncomfortable by the crimes of these men. Indeed one of the strangest claims in Godmilow’s piece is her assumption that most who see The Act of Killing are extremely comfortable with what they are watching on screen. We really aren’t and therein lies much of the film’s power.

All of these developments, turning your back on commandments such as those handed down by Godmilow or making your film about the perpetrator and not the victim, would seem to be an evolution, or at least the healthy signs of an art form ready and willing to take chances. (To be clear, none of this is wholly new within documentary and we often get way too self-congratulatory thinking we’ve figured out something revolutionary that has never been done before.)

And, again, we shouldn’t forget that both Godmilow and Fraser have historically been at the forefront of pushing filmmakers to rethink tired approaches to the form.

But perhaps because they have been in the business of shaping other people’s work, whether through public or private critique or exhortation, that both pieces had the air of a last man/woman standing. How could it be, both seemed to wonder, that this film holds so many in its sway? Why had no one realized that the emperor has no clothes?

So they exhort the reader – and other filmmakers – in ways that alienate everyone but those already on their side. I personally would never feel comfortable using the language that either did, telling another filmmaker that they’d created pornography or a snuff film. Surely there’s better, less offending language that builds dialogue.

Despite what Godmilow wrote, neither piece seemed to want to start a conversation but to end it.

The documentary world however has changed. Fraser’s power within that world has diminished some. Like other publicly-funded broadcasters, his ability to dole out money has been cut dramatically. New sources of money like Netflix and CNN and filmmakers’ increasing reliance on crowdfunding sometimes make the classic pitch forums where Fraser led other international broadcasters in carving up sets of filmmakers before lunch an act of nostalgia. Instead of filmmakers walking away with the money to make their films, they leave with promises of continuing to talk.

The documentary landscape today looks drastically different from what existed ten years ago, and much of the change reflects a new documentary paradigm where the power rests as much in the hands of motivated filmmakers as it does the traditional gatekeeper model of grants, broadcaster or universities. This one-way movement shows no sign of abating.

Sadly, we’re not a community that always at its best remembering and reflecting on the work that came before us, so much of Godmilow’s groundbreaking art is unknown to many working filmmakers. It was telling that commenters were pulling out negative reviews of her films where she was criticized for the very boldness that we often celebrate today.

No doubt that Fraser and Godmilow succeeded in getting us talking and if you feel The Act of Killing is a landmark piece of cinema, as I do, you should embrace passionate debate over the ways that different people approach that piece of art.

But I believe they would have had more success if they acknowledged the debate is already taking place – on the ground, with working filmmakers and writers – rather than hand down commandments for the way everyone should make documentary film.

Those days of one way fits all are gone.

AJ Schnack is a filmmaker whose recent films include Caucus and We Always Lie to Strangers. He’s the Founding Director of the Cinema Eye Honors and from 2005-2011 he wrote the nonfiction film blog All these wonderful things.

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