The Films That Made Us: The Act of Killing

Judging by my earliest memories of watching films, they were always escapist experiences; a dream or a fantasy. Early on in my childhood, films filled me with wonder and mystery. I was incapable of thinking critically or theoretically about the things I watched. As I matured, cinema became an art form that I habitually and obsessively deciphered, but which largely remained as escapism. Throughout my life as a spectator of cinema, only one film has really moved me beyond an oneric interpretation, even though it has been described by its creator as a ‘fever dream.’ It is the one film that has produced profound changes to how I conceptualise the documentary form.

News From Home , dir. Chantal Akerman (1977)

News From Home, dir. Chantal Akerman (1977)

Documentaries were not always my preference. As a young aspiring filmmaker I focused on producing short films and music videos, until in my second year of film studies at university, where I was tutored by documentary producer, Professor Joram ten Brink. Through Joram’s class I was introduced to the power and flexibility of the documentary form, and its capacity for narrative and diverse styles and techniques that far exceeded the clunky and formulaic discipline of fictional filmmaking and productions. From Jean Rouch’s genre bending La Pyramide Humaine (1961) and Chantal Akerman’s essay film News From Home (1977), to Asif Kapadia’s archive driven Senna (2010) and Ari Folman’s stunning Waltz with Bashir (2008), our class was introduced to all the diversity that documentary cinema was capable of. Finally, in our last class of the semester, and a few weeks following its 2014 BAFTA win for Best Documentary, Joram presented to us Joshua Oppenheimer's masterpiece The Act of Killing (2012), of which Joram is a producer. I can honestly say that on viewing this film I was changed.

Oppenheimer’s film presents both the childlike wonder that I relished in the cinema of my youth, and the symbolism and sub-textual layers that I have since come to respect as the peak of the cinematic form. The meta-performance encountered throughout the film, paired with the exotic landscapes, produces the inherent escapism that is then dramatically contrasted and struck down by the harsh reality of the perpetrators' historical acts of violence and their boastful ownership of their crimes.

The Act of Killing is intentionally multi-faceted and intricate, and obvious clues to this are in the deconstruction of its title; an act of performance, an act as an action, an act in a series of acts. Oppenheimer’s depiction of performance by the perpetrators is both explicit (in front of the documentary camera) and forced, as they re-enact the killings. His reflexive techniques seem inspired by the best of Jean Rouch, whilst the observational moments would seem at home in a Wiseman film, or a MacDougall ethnographic documentary. The combination of these elements is exciting in its mastery.

For three reasons I would name The Act of Killing as The Film That Made Me: 

Firstly, it’s dedication to furthering the conventions of documentary cinema is an inspiration.
Secondly, Oppenheimer has approached his subject from a studious and informed perspective, and has taken full advantage of his access to these extraordinary people and circumstances.
Thirdly and most importantly, this documentary has changed the social fabric of a country and its identity, and how it engages with a repressed and dark moment from its history.

These reasons contribute to the way I think about the production of my own films, and act as a guiding principle on what can be achieved with perseverance and tenacity. Importantly, viewing this film fundamentally altered my future ambitions to want to contribute to the art of documentary filmmaking.

Oppenheimer's film makes a brave and honest statement on a zeitgeist of our times. The Act of Killing transcends the function of entertainment, remaining as a confessional artefact of history, an accessible and universal testament to the monstrous ways humans are capable of treating one another, a dynamic portrayal on the effects of trauma on society, and an indictment of intolerant behaviour that exists, even today, which has the capacity to evolve into acts so grievous they only seem fathomable in our imagination. Or a fever dream...

[Sean Parnell, Curzon Aldgate]

This piece is part of our ongoing series The Films That Made Us. Follow us on twitterFacebook and Instagram to discover more!

Ryan Hewitt