2013 was a pretty great year for documentaries. I liked a lot of them. Rewind This, First Cousin Once Removed, Cutie and the Boxer, Our Nixon, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, Gideon’s Army, Call Me Kuchu, and Let the Fire Burn were all memorable. Sure, everyone gushed over Stories We Tell, and it was a well-done doc, no doubt. But, for me it felt like a million New Yorker stories I’ve read, something in that comfortable tradition of upper middle-class literary memoir that while good enough on its own terms, didn’t really seem to be adding much to what the documentary form is capable of doing. So, these three docs and one hybrid are the ones that seemed to be working in those directions, pushing at the boundaries, opening up new possibilities.
1. The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer
This film is hard to watch and hard to stop watching at the same time. For me, it’s one of the most important documentaries I’ve ever seen, and one of the hardest to truly recommend watching since the act of watching is so emotionally draining. The premise is a masterstroke: the gangsters responsible for a witch-hunt of leftists in Indonesia (that clearly earns the genocide label) are asked to recreate their killings as they see fit for a big screen production. These mass murderers (who are now regarded as heroes by the Indonesian government) are more than happy to help depict their past deeds, and for over two hours we spend time listening to them as they gloat over their killing, grapple with the horror of it, and argue for how to make filmic images that fit their heroism.
At times the images they decide on are surreal, almost beautifully psychedelic, though just as often dip into the wells of action film star-making tropes. It’s baffling, really traumatizing material, yet the film is devoid of any graphic historical images, opting to view all of this madness only from the point of view of the perpetrators, through their words and crafted images.
The film has done a lot to help change public perception of the genocide within Indonesia, but it also clearly speaks to the falseness of collective memories of violence shaped by any nation. The quote from Voltaire that opens the film speaks to this: “All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.”