Human Rights in film and art

Posted on Thursday, 8th August, 2013

I recently saw the documentary, The Act of Killing and felt compelled to try to articulate what and how it made me feel although I’m not sure that’s entirely possible.  You can find out more about the film including the full synopsis here, written by the Director, Joshua Oppenheimer, but in brief, this is what it’s all about (text taken from The Filmhouse) and here’s the trailer…

A true cinematic experiment, The Act of Killing explores a chapter of Indonesia’s history in a way bound to stir debate – by enlisting a group of former killers, including Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo, to re-enact their lives in the style of the films they love. When the government of President Sukarno was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his cohorts joined in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. Now, Anwar and his team perform detailed re-enactments of their crimes with pride, holding numerous discussions about sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics. Their fixation on style rather than substance – despite the ghastly nature of the scenes – makes them mesmerising to watch. But as movie violence and real-life violence begin to overlap, Anwar’s pride gradually gives way to regret. And we see a man overwhelmed by the horrific acts he has chosen to share with the world.

It’s easily the most disturbing and difficult film I’ve ever watched.  I cry very easily in films but this didn’t make me cry at all, it’s beyond making you feel upset or sad.  It makes you utterly despair for, and ashamed of, the human race.  We all know and read about genocide, be it historical or contemporary, and it’s an age old discussion to talk about how numb and unresponsive we are capable of becoming in the face of news of continuous atrocities when they don’t affect us personally, but this film and the way it shows how normal and acceptable the absolute worst of human behaviour can be is just mindblowing.  I won’t describe the final scene in detail but what you see is not far off how you feel as a viewer after having sat through it.

In light of its content, it feels absurd to describe it as a ‘great’ film but it is wonderfully shot and edited, the intimacy between the director and subjects is incredible and the layered narrative and visual references are so smart the way they wind in and around each other.  I found my mind going at a million miles an hour with everything it made me think about.  It also made me reflect on the place and power of visual art compared to documentary filmmaking, specifically of course filmmaking that deals with human rights issues, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’m involved in something so totally superfluous to anything important or relevant to the reality of what we live.  I know the world would be a culturally poorer place without visual art, and I try to remind myself of that regularly when I’m full of doubts, but I do find myself questioning the point of it when there’s so much more important stuff going on in the world.

I describe my work as having some crossover with documentary, and I do stand by that, I love finding peoples’ stories and a way to tell them.  I’d also say that there are plenty documentary filmmakers who crossover into the art realm, films that take a more poetic and/or experimental form and I do believe that there’s a place for those works, that they’re important, enriching and thought provoking.  But… it’s hard to get enthusiastic about beauty and poetry and the sublime when you feel like we, as human beings, are so willing and capable of destoying the most precious thing we have.

Of course, there are also plenty artists who deal with human rights issues in their work, often in a performative, confrontational way, with varying degrees of success and I use the word success in terms of how it honestly makes you consider the issues at heart in a real way.  I feel like, perhaps because of the contemporary ‘art world’ context and the inherent exclusivity in it, it can often be troublingly bourgeois, and ultimately weak, in it’s attempt at ‘shocking’.

There’s so much more to be said about all this but I’ll stop there.  Here below is an interview with two of the Executive Producers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.  I think Herzog’s comments in particular hit the nail on the head.  All in all, I highly recommend the film, as hard as it is to watch.

 

Topic: The Moving Image

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