Finding a Liberal Form:
Oppenheimer, Morris, Godmilow

By Colin Beckett

Screen capture still from The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

A crude popular assumption situates the blockbuster and the documentary as the antipodes of filmgoing. In an appropriately moldy cliché, blockbusters are the seductive candy that we overconsume at the expense of nutritious documentary vegetables. Blockbusters give us what we desire while documentaries offer what we need. Blockbusters distract us with a falsely rosy (or thrillingly charged) imaginary world that we’d prefer to inhabit; documentaries confront us with the truths we’d rather leave behind.

One might object that even within the mainstream, this binary no longer holds. The cultural snobbery that disdains blockbusters has been marginalized, unveiled for the class-based, Bourdieuvian distinction-game that it is. Likewise, we are now far too canny to give documentary a pass for its good intentions. Not to mention the economic and cultural developments that have created new appetites for documentary moving images (of a certain kind at least) precisely as they have undermined the base of the blockbuster’s dominance. In between, a space has opened for middlebrow documentary of greater sophistication than ever before.

The prominence of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) might be seen as an emblem of this progress. Its massive critical acclaim and widespread availability are said to have brought into the mainstream the kind of self-critical, aesthetically adventurous and psychologically complex documentary filmmaking that cognoscenti have celebrated for years, but which has been crowded out of public view by the feel-good pieties and muted stylistics of social issue and historical documentaries.

But The Act of Killing is itself partly structured by an implicit distinction between the apparently retrograde notions of dangerous blockbuster fantasy and nutritious documentary revelation. Oppenheimer’s mass murderer subjects are movie-mad fantasists. In the 1950s and 60s, they earned their living scalping tickets to the kind of spectacular Hollywood epics that later provided the boilerplate imaginary in which they could situate the violence they carried out themselves. Anwar Congo, Oppenheimer's lead, even suggests that he participated in the massacre of communists partly because of their effort to ban American films of the kind that not only drew a large enough audience to sustain him as a ticket scalper, but also provided spectacles that made him happy, if only for a few hours. 

Congo and his fellow gangsters’ love of Hollywood, the film implies, is one of the motivations that has compelled them to openly describe their horrific crimes for the camera: the director’s willingness to help them stage the events of their lives in the garish, fantastical styles of their favorite mid-century films overriding whatever traces of shame or self-preservation linger despite the impunity they have been granted by the Indonesian government. With Oppenheimer’s help, they are finally able to physically insert themselves into the absurd scenarios they had been imagining for years. Once achieved, these scenes stand in Oppenheimer’s film as flimsy, wish-fulfilling projections that the killers desperately maintain as they are rendered obscene by the less palatable, but necessary truths captured in the director’s straightforward documentary footage.

While Oppenheimer’s film has been praised for its self-reflexive demonstration of cinema’s tortured relationship with truth – self-reflexivity having long ago been elevated as the hallmark of cinematic sophistication – its meta-cinematic gestures in fact serve the opposite purpose, underscoring the deceptions of fiction film in order to valorize the naive documentary image. The Act of Killing was not a blockbuster, even by documentary’s modest standards. According to the website Box Office Mojo, it stands as the 214th best-grossing documentary in film history. [1] Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), that list’s top entry, places at 424 on the all-time, genre-blind list, just below the already forgotten Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell action comedy The Other Guys (2010). A topical documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 might achieve something close to blockbuster status but for higher prestige fare, the ceiling tops out at midcult rather than masscult. To measure such films’ sometimes substantial cultural influence, we lack the solidly quantitative metric that defines the blockbuster, and must rely on the fuzzy, impressionistic criterion of the Media Event.

On that score, Oppenheimer’s film was an undeniable smash. It appeared on year-end top lists in publications ranging from cinephile outlets like Sight & Sound to middlebrow dailies like The Guardian and the most popular glossies, including Time (which had in 1965 hailed the grisly suppression of Indonesian communism as "the West's best news for years in Asia”) and even People. It was the subject of multiple New York Times articles and a reference in countless more. After a long tour of the international festival circuit, the film was distributed in theaters around the country, before taking a victory lap on public television, and is now available for online streaming across multiple platforms. Its apparent innovations did not prevent its nomination for an Academy Award, the stodgiest register of documentary tastes.

The film’s success in such conservative quarters might have indicated that its approach was not as radical as those favored by the documentary vanguard. But in much of the writing about the film produced within this community – and the ensuing discussion – its champions have interpreted that success to signal a shift in mainstream expectations for documentary, previously set by the stolid aesthetics and sympathetic subjects of the social issue documentary, and positioned the film to clear the way for the evolution of a richer, more demanding documentary ecosystem. For reasons both political and aesthetic, it has been disturbing to observe Oppenheimer’s film placed in this role. Its problems go much deeper than its insufficient reflexivity. By any measure that counts, The Act of Killing is a deeply reactionary film. Under the guise of a trailblazing style, it smuggles in a deeply conservative philosophy, and enshrines a vision of documentary utterly contrary to an effective aesthetic of the left.

The successive waves of praise that have washed in since The Act of Killing first appeared in the summer of 2012 have been met with a few dissenting holdouts. The loudest, most frequent objections include the complaint that Oppenheimer’s cozy collaboration with his mass murderer subjects places his viewers in an unwanted complicity with them; that it valorizes the perpetrators of the killings at the expense of their victims; that it makes Western entertainment from the suffering of a once colonized people, and portrays their country as a stereotypically backwards and corrupt Third World wasteland by the unfairly applied standards of their former colonizers; and finally that Oppenheimer neglects to mention the role the U.S. government played in Suharto’s 1965 coup, letting American viewers off the hook for the responsibility they share in the horrors depicted. All fair enough. But these critiques are scattershot, identifying an array of flaws the film shares with many other documentaries, and missing its essential, more consequential, import.

Forget the American involvement in the 1965 coup – the film neglects the Indonesian involvement. After a brief set of titles that paint the barest historical background for the stories that follow, it supplies little more context. The name “Suharto” is muttered only a couple of times, and “Sukarno” never. Though it cannot be said that Oppenheimer allows us to the forget that the petty gangsters who star in his film carried out their murders on someone else’s behalf, he leaves the nature and motivations of that someone else to be dimly intuited.

The history that Oppenheimer does present is unnecessarily distorted. The titles tell us:

In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.

Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of Western governments, over 1 million ‘communists’ were murdered.

The precise sequence of events that began in Indonesia on September 30th, 1965, leading to the extermination of somewhere between 500,000 and two million Indonesians and the commencement of Suharto’s 31-year reign are “still sinister and obscure” as the historian Benedict Anderson has written. [2] But however shady the developments that lead to the killings, one thing that has always been clear is that Indonesia’s substantial population of communists were the primary target. In 1965, Indonesia’s PKI was the third largest communist party in the world, behind only Russia and China. By the end of 1966, it no longer existed at all. While it’s true that, as the film’s titles denote, non-communist populations, particularly ethnic Chinese, found themselves under systematic attack, it is bizarre to place those populations at the center of a two-sentence summary of the killings and refer to the communists who were its primary victims in scare quotes.

It is difficult to say why Oppenheimer paints the 1965-66 mass killings as some kind of hysterical Red Scare rather than a genocide carried out to permanently shift the balance of the country’s social forces, as even the most superficial political analysis would identify it to be. Does he feel that communists don’t make sympathetic victims? Has he been so deeply conditioned by the liberal account of American red scares that he cannot believe that powerful communist parties existed outside of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites? Whatever his reasons, the effect is to foreclose from the outset any truly political understanding of the history the film addresses. 

In undertaking a film about the ‘65-66 mass killing of Indonesian communists, Oppenheimer was in the unusual position to fairly assume almost total ignorance from all but the most specifically educated of viewers. In the United States and Western Europe, the history of Indonesia is infrequently discussed and less frequently taught. In Indonesia itself, almost every knowledgeable source reports a widespread historical amnesia regarding the early Suharto years and the events that brought him to power. While the current government no longer bans books about this history, “TV and cinema were another story,” Benedict Anderson has said, “since they appealed to large non-reading publics.” [3]

There is no question then that for the vast majority of it audiences, The Act of Killing precedes a larger historical understanding, and must be considered as an introductory text. In supplying only a scant and bizarrely distorted account of the forces behind the killing, Oppenheimer provides these audiences only the most simplistic outline of a totalitarian power overtaking a democratic one, the features of each left indistinguishable. Content to blankly condemn this totalitarianism and the violence that brought it into being, the film prepares its viewers with little more than the vague impression of all-too-typical post-colonial turmoil and corruption.

In fairness to Oppenheimer, it must be granted the historical record here is hopelessly complex and to do it justice would require its own, completely different feature film. Furthermore, it might be argued that the intertwining aesthetic and historiographic poverty of most historical documentaries suggest that anyone looking to understand the complicated array of facts that substantiate any worthwhile historical account is better off turning to a book and leaving cinema to the sensuous and immediate tasks it handles best.

What is troubling about The Act of Killing is not that it fails to answer every last historical question, but that it fails to pose such questions at all. Any filmmaker interested in helping their audience understand Indonesian history and politics would begin by asking what was at stake in the killings, which social forces they served and what kind of class relations underwrote them, what distinguished Suharto’s regime from the Sukarno presidency it replaced, and how the heroic myth that consecrates these anti-communist killers as national heroes has persisted for more than a decade since Suharto’s fall. Oppenheimer evinces not even the slightest curiosity about these issues. As the director of a film that he knew was destined to serve as an introductory text, his neglect of such questions, or the desire to inculcate them in his audience, can only be seen to follow from the judgment that historical understanding was secondary to other concerns. 

This view is shared by the film’s supporters. As Errol Morris, one of its early, high-profile backers, wrote in Slate: “Oppenheimer is not offering a historical account of what happened in Indonesia, but rather an examination of the nature of memory and of history.” [4] This is assumed to be a virtue. Rather than bore us with the contingencies of political history, Oppenheimer is on the hunt for deeper eternal verities. And that is precisely the problem. In his “documentary of the imagination,” history is not animated by the conflict between opposing social forces, but the array of individual psychologies and highly particularized motivations of its participants. Instead of seeking to place those motivations into a larger context, it wants to luxuriate in the sensuous qualities of their experience.

Seeking no specific, contingent explanation of the social forces that have made Indonesia, the film poses generic and ponderous humanist questions: How does someone live after committing horrific violence? What kind of society allows these crimes to go unpunished? What is the relationship between individual memory and national history? Not to mention all the preening meta-cinematic issues ushered in by the directorial process, foregrounded by its title. The Act of Killing does not simply fail to give us an account of what brought Suharto to power and what kept him there, which classes benefitted and which suffered under this reign; rather it tells us that we don’t even need to ask. In its orientation toward the specifics of Indonesian history, and the kind of attitude it cultivates in its viewers toward history more broadly, the film offers one of the purest demonstrations of bourgeois idealism ever committed to film. 

*  *  *

Just as one strata of the contemporary blockbuster has taken pseudo-documentary forms, many of the films most highly praised by the advocates of progressive documentary are those seen to meld fact and fiction in the “hybrid” forms that Robert Koehler identified as a vanguard in his already seminal Cinema Scope essay, “The New Nonfiction.” [5] The Act of Killing shows us the worst-case scenario of this convergence: the abandonment of documentary’s large public concerns and historical materialist orientation in the zeal to map all the complex and ambiguous stirrings of individual interiority. 

The imprimatur of Executive Producer Errol Morris draws a neat line backwards from The Act of Killing to a likelier antecedent than highbrow festival documentary, and points to the particular brand of fact-fiction hybrid that it apotheosizes: Morris’ own films and writings. While he has generously described Oppenheimer’s work “astruly unlike any other documentary film,” the procedure that Oppenheimer calls “documentary of the imagination” has been the hallmark of Morris’ own cinematic method.

The unexpected popular success of Morris’ The Thin Blue Line in 1988 in some ways offered a blueprint for the reception of The Act of Killing. His use of reenactments, his inclusion of competing testimonies and his refusal to resolve them, and his expert deployment of moody, expressionist stylistics were taken as a harbinger of documentary’s belated adoption of the skeptical attitudes toward truth, authenticity, and the virtues of plain style that characterized postmodernity. But there was a problem: He was no postmodernist at all, but a firm believer in the existence and accessibility of truth. As a Ph.D. student at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, he had become so enamored with the explanatory force of Saul Kripke’s causal theory of reference that he adopted it as a philosophy of history. As Morris later asserted in an essay written for the New York Times: “There is an objective reality. There is objective truth. And there is objective history.” [6]

Morris’ highly aestheticized, fiction-infused style was not a disavowal of documentary’s obligation to truth, but a rejection of the vérité codes that were assumed to demonstrate the faithful execution of that obligation. As he told Joel Siegel after the film’s release (and which he has repeated with the kind of frequency and self-satisfaction in which Newt Gingrich deploys his favorite quotations): “The belief that style – or the absence of it – somehow guarantees truth is an especially pernicious assumption of cinéma vérité. Style is style, and truth is truth, and, as such, isn’t guaranteed by anything.” [7] In The Thin Blue Line, Morris made a convincing demonstration of that thesis by using it to assemble a case so strong it would free Randall Adams from jail. At the same time he decimated the platitudes of social issue cinéma vérité, Morris did its practitioners one better by actually correcting the injustice it depicted.

If his expressionist style could not be a tool for accessing truth, it would be a motor for exposing falsehood. For the most part, the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line do not reconstruct events Morris believes to be truth, but stage the patent absurdity of the witness accounts that put Adams behind bars. With a noirish touch, he makes plain how their stories were shaped by a greater experience with crime on television than in real life.

So like Oppenheimer’s staging of Anwar Congo’s Hollywood fantasies, Morris crafts an image of his subjects’ imagination using all the inadvertent admissions he has patiently drawn from them. His preference for depicting falsehood in the service of truth is drawn from another plank of his ontological-aesthetic philosophy, which he describes in another oft-repeated aperçu:

It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around. [8]

Because the viewer cannot access the fragile truth of an honest image, he will provide nakedly false ones, at least potentially forcing his audience out of their automatically instantiated biases.

From this reasoning, Morris developed the strategy that has guided nearly every one of his films and writings: the dogged and detailed reconstruction of his subjects errors and delusions – which are sometimes weirdly marvelous, as in his first two films, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1996) and certain episodes of his television series First Person, but more frequently dark and sinister. Only in A Brief History of Time (1991), a commissioned work about an uncontroversially extraordinary figure, does Morris document an imagination that produces truth by positive example.

In The Thin Blue Line, his savage deconstruction of human error exposed the mistakes and deliberate fabrications that had placed the wrong man behind bars. But beyond pointing to the state’s desire to quickly convict a subject, and the witnesses’ craven or pathetic need to be listened to, he points to no larger cause behind this miscarriage of justice. In 2012, Morris would publish Wilderness of Error, an investigation in prose into the case of another man he believed to have been wrongfully convicted, the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald. Though unable to prove MacDonald’s innocence, his inquiry is again thorough while his analysis of how the conviction came to pass remains limited.

It’s strange that a journalist-artist would devote many years and multiple projects to combatting individual wrongful convictions without ever giving public consideration to the wider context of a criminal justice system that produces a tremendous number of such faulty convictions and visits a horrific violence upon its victims. All of Morris’ films draw similarly circumscribed lessons, even when their subject is of great political urgency. The Fog of War (2003), Standard Operating Procedure (2008) and The Unknown Known (2014) all reveal the machinations of particular individuals or groups of individuals in great detail but rigorously exclude a wider analysis.

The final leg that props up Morris’ philosophy of journalistic art is the belief that while efforts like his can expose individual falsehoods, they cannot provide a larger toolkit in the search for truth because human beings are by nature in thrall to unexamined superstition and hopelessly, unalterably corrupt. As he put it to Werner Herzog:

I’m very fond of telling people when they say that they would like regime change, for example, in Washington, that what we really need is species change. That the species itself is so impossible and so deeply degraded that one could well do with something else for a change. [9]

At the bottom of Morris’ art then rests the most vulgar anti-politics: a cynical disgust with “human nature.” In his work, there is no society, only the temporary collision of atomized individuals. The errors in reasoning he seeks to uncover cannot be understood as products of a shared ideology but rather the lonely prison of individual psychology.

In contrast to the German expressionism and film noir that have supplied Morris frequent stylistic inspiration, which in their time served to indict the social relations of the world they shared with their audience, his aesthetic serves to isolate his subjects in an unpeopled world of their own making. Starkly individuated by his patented Interrotron, shrouded in the atmospheric miasma of his visual effects, and hung out to dry by his patient interview technique, his subjects have no one to turn to and nowhere to go, so they voyage into themselves, supplying the filmmaker with the hypocrisies and delusions he will heroically unmask. Why should he bother to develop an analysis of the world we share, when people are to remain condemned to making the same mistakes again and again? 

Cumulatively, his body of work may constitute the grimmest, purest dystopian vision in the history of cinema. In the classic anti-communist dystopian fictions of the Cold War era, at least the efforts of the heroic individual can free even the weakest among us from tyranny. But as the ultimate protagonist of his investigations, Morris is incapable of imagining a world better than the one that exists, so he must recapitulate again and again the errors he has identified.

His dark, rancid vision has been massively influential. Scratch almost any American documentary with aesthetic pretensions made in the last two-and-a-half decades and you’ll find evidence of Morris’ influence, whether in flashy style, associative interview structure, or limited political horizon. His impact stretches far beyond the boundaries of cinema, and is visible in the dictates that have arisen for nonfiction media of all kinds: the triumph of creative nonfiction and the lyric essay over more traditional forms of journalism and essayistic prose; the elaborate atmospherics of radio programs like This American Life and Radiolab; and the new oral culture of “storytelling” fostered by The Moth and its descendants.

And it is under the banner of “storytelling” that all of these cultural products gather. “Storytelling” is the keyword that signals you are not in for just a regular talk show or a drily informational documentary, but an immersive aesthetic experience of psychological complexity. It lets you know that this piece of media has higher aspirations than transmitting information, raising consciousness, or creating a shared mediated experience.

The Act of Killing
bears a much greater affinity to these forms than the more attenuated or analytic productions of the documentary avant-garde. This similarity has gone largely unnoticed because of the distinguishing audacity that must have drawn Morris to Oppenheimer’s project in the first place. While Morris and his descendants have typically plied their aesthetic through modest and quirky subjects, Oppenheimer applied it to the kind of obscure and horrifying historical trauma that would seem to cry out for a social issue documentary treatment.

*  *  *

The smaller constituencies that make up the larger documentary avant-garde have minimized the differences between their goals in the face of a common enemy: social issue documentary. Dissatisfaction with this form has been informed by a variety of desires, sometimes complementary, sometimes competing. On one level, there is an aesthetic critique: a complaint against the “boring” documentaries produced by good intentions, an emphasis on content over form, and a reliance on the inherently extra-cinematic tools of talking head interviews, hefty doses of explanatory titles, and voiceover narration.

On another, there is an ontological critique, which charges that the social issue documentary is rooted in an overly simplistic idea of truth or a naive understanding of cinema’s relation to it. Preceding both of these critiques, there is the political critique from the left of what was once called “the liberal documentary.” The primacy of this formulation has meant that its precepts often slip-in unnoticed to the other forms of critique, where it is drawn upon to argue that the social issue documentary’s bad form makes for bad politics, that its ontology is not only simplistic, but dangerous.

Though it addresses photography rather than cinema, Martha Rosler’s 1981 essay “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography),” written to accompany her photo/text project The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75), was the most sustained early effort to make “liberal documentary” a slur and went a long way in establishing a template for subsequent critiques in the domain of cinema. Rosler argues that the classic incarnation of American documentary photography, rooted in the journalistic crusades of the Progressive Era and consolidated under the government agencies of The New Deal, is essentially meliorist by design. Geared toward the correction of specific and individual social problems, and making a moralistic rather than political appeal, it cannot propose collective, revolutionary solutions. In the classic documentary images, she writes, “poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.” [10] Like the institutions of private charity and social work which took new shape alongside it, documentary is reformist in the worst sense, not obscuring the social totality behind the variety of injustices, but vitiating any revolutionary implications by reproducing the class relation between viewer and viewed and offering the false bridge provided by the former’s sympathetic gaze.   

In the early-80s, Rosler saw the primacy of the classical liberal documentary crumbling with classical liberalism itself, both victims of the neoliberal order whose triumph was made apparent by the Reagan revolution. The photographs that once made a case for reform in newspapers, pamphlets and on bureaucrats’ desks now made a home in museums and galleries under the additional level of remove provided by aesthetic contemplation. Rosler’s most successful contemporaries, represented by figures like Arbus, Winogrand and Friedlander, had meanwhile fashioned a cooler, more dispassionate documentary style that skipped straight to the aesthetic pleasures made available by distant suffering without even offering the alibi of pity.

The force of Rosler’s argument found her insights quickly adopted in the theoretically sophisticated quarters of the art and film worlds. But Rosler was a better diagnostician than prophet. In so far as it addressed domestic subjects, the classical liberal documentary indeed continued to wither, but she did not foresee another hallmark of the neoliberal era that was coming into being: the new discourse of Human Rights. As the vigor and sham innocence of liberal concern moved from the national to the international sphere, a countless array of N.G.O.’s and a smaller number of quasi-governmental agencies emerged, whose causes and bank accounts demanded the revitalization of the liberal documentary.

Photography would have a role to play here, but the demand was primarily filled by films and videos. When the new human rights institutions did not fund and distribute these works directly, they enjoined sympathetic columnists and intellectuals to hone the discourse into which they would be received. After the growing pains that marked the 1970s, American public television had developed as a suitable outlet for their dissemination, and changes to the system of theatrical distribution opened a space for more.

A raft of filmmaking activists was at the ready, trained by this newly robust public television, or in the community television stations and video collectives that had preceded it. Chastened by America’s rightward turn, they set aside their prefigurative politics or organizational ambitions in favor of the seemingly more pragmatic strategies offered by the human rights discourse. By the end of the 80s, this revamped social issue documentary had become a large enough field that Human Rights Watch, one of the prime movers in this new political formation, could launch a film festival dedicated solely to it.

In this context, Jill Godmilow emerged in the mid-1980s as the documentary film world’s Martha Rosler. Her film Far From Poland (1984) echoes some of the terms of Rosler’s critique in its autocritical account of her failure to make a film about Polish Solidarity, indicting the inappropriateness of her desire to do so. In intentionally clumsy reenactments of first-person accounts of the movement, conversations with Polish exiles who critique Godmilow’s work-in-progress onscreen, and dramatizations of the director’s arguments with her video artist boyfriend, she ridicules her own American presumptuousness and careerist egotism.

Since Far From Poland, Godmilow has taken this same tack again and again, culminating in the cartoonishly self-abnegating, useless, and handwringing What Farocki Taught (1997), which essays a shot-by-shot remake of Harun Farocki’s 1969 Inextinguishable Fire. Godmilow’s films are closer to an overliteral and smug transposition of Godard and Miéville’s dense and abstruse self-laceration in Ici et ailleurs (1976) to the more pragmatic American scene than an illustration of Rosler’s thesis. But in her sideline as a teacher and theorist of documentary, Godmilow has taken ample inspiration from Rosler. Her widely taught, frequently cited 1999 essay “What’s Wrong with the Liberal Documentary,” a post-facto mission statement for What Farocki Taught, has supplanted Rosler’s earlier text in the cinematic discourse, and become a classic critique of the liberal documentary film. [11]

Godmilow castigates the form’s emphasis on sentiment over reason, morality over politics, and its assumption of a comfortably distanced middle class audience. Mediated by distance and feeling, such a form does not even effectively advocate for social change on reformist terms, but:

ends up confirming and making comfortable the class status of that middle class audience, by providing an opportunity for compassion, for up-lift, for hope, and finally, for self-satisfaction – and perhaps complacency. There is nothing to learn about ourselves and our activities here. There is everything to learn about the other. We and they are not linked other than by feelings, like caring, concern, sometimes outrage. But the connections or links are momentary. We leave the theater filled up with our best feelings about ourselves, and the next day go about the same business as the day before, in the same way. This produces not useful knowledge, but desire – for a better, fairer world – but not the self-knowledge to begin to change anything. [12]

For Godmilow, the liberal documentary remains titillating rather than instructive so long as it relies upon “the pedigree of the real,” the sober codes of documentary realism that imply an unvarnished truth, and its twin, “the pornography of the real,” which produces voyeuristic pleasure through the sensational depiction of real human suffering. To avoid both, Godmilow proscribes “self-consciously undercutting and under-representing the real” through the kind of distancing, Brechtian strategies she has long employed, which she believes foreground systemic analysis, and an articulation of the real social relation between maker, viewer and viewed.

Godmilow’s hefty debt to Rosler is obvious but never stated. But while the photographer undertook a carefully historicized, synoptic critique that never loses sight of the form’s development in relation to a larger social history, the filmmaker charged forward with a prescriptive manifesto. The preeminence of Godmilow’s version of the critique in the film world is not only a product of her emphasis on film. Documentary film discourse has always placed makers rather than viewers at its center. Because Godmilow offers concrete, universally applicable suggestions, her essay has been well received by makers more interested in advice than analysis. Though Rosler, like Godmilow, wrote her critique as a companion to an original artwork of her own, she provides no clear path forward, concluding that “the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantial social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary,” indicating that any solely artistic effort to remake society will never be enough. [13] By contrast, Godmilow suggests that formal choices alone can prove revolutionary, providing not only solutions but encouragement to the socially minded documentary artist.

Jill Godmilow and Errol Morris are contemporaries. And while they both spent the 80s and 90s advancing influential critiques of social issue documentary, it was understood implicitly that their goals were very different. Morris was a midcult sensation, the innovator behind a novel pop style. Godmilow was taken as a serious theorist-practitioner of aesthetic politics whose didactic vision would find greater purchase in the academy than with the moviegoing public or even the new human rights moving image activists.

The Act of Killing’s elevation by documentary aesthetes and documentary cultural left alike suggests that these once obvious distinctions have blurred in the past decade as a new, thrillingly large, critical documentary community has come together. Morris’ obvious distance from the social issue documentary meant that his success never posed a threat to the predominance of its standards in the mainstream understanding of documentary. Oppenheimer, on the other, encroaches into its bailiwick. That it might stand as a big, blistering “fuck you” to the liberal documentary fostered an impression in some viewers that it was also a “fuck you” to liberalism.

One viewer who did not fail to notice The Act of Killing’s questionable politics was Godmilow herself. A little more than a year and half after the film’s North American festival premiere, she published the most thorough and adamant critique yet. Writing in Indiewire, she savages the film as a “dangerous model for the future.” [14] Elaborating her critique in the form of advice to other filmmakers (and a kind of condescending open letter to Oppenheimer himself), Godmilow enumerates her complaints in the form of a listicle: “Don’t Make History Without Facts”; “Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People by Other Little Brown People”; “Don’t Produce Freak Shows of the Criminal, Oppressed, ‘the Primitive’”; “Be Fair to Your Social Actors”; “Avoid Building a Film on the Bedrock of Pornography”; “Don’t Compromise Your Audience.”

These points can be well taken, but like the abbreviated critiques that preceded it, Godmilow’s offers a set of small, specific complaints that fails to register the film’s essential failure: its denial of history. Worse, she takes the film as an opportunity to reprise the same old schtick, reproducing the defect that also always marred her vision: the effort to reduce a film’s political effect, which is produced through a complex interaction between formal choices, their political bases, and the conditions of distribution, to a filmmaker’s demonstration of political purity. In place of real political analysis, she proposes a code for the performance of ethics. As such, her critique reads like the petty sniping of a competitive colleague, someone more invested in establishing her way as the right way than a collaborative effort to discover better ways.

Beneath this, we can see the final exhaustion of the Brechtian modes for which Godmilow has always advocated and which she has made no effort to transcend. The self-abnegating gestures that she demands of Oppenheimer are no more than that: gestures. Even if he had taken her advice, his film would still be oriented toward the detailed depiction of individual psychologies and away from a genuinely political understanding of history. It would just now assure a small segment of his viewers that he had read the same social theory.

Godmilow’s dime store distanciations will never be as widely adopted as she would like because they offer no positive vision in the wake of their critique, no feeling for the new aesthetic, the new world, it would like to bring into being. Her hero Farocki has devoted nearly five decades to restless experimentation with new approaches that might be adequate to a particular subject at a particular moment. Godmilow, by contrast, flatly rejected a single approach for nearly three decades and has done nothing since but broadcast this rejection again and again. She developed an increasingly ornate argument about what documentary cannot do, but has evinced little interest in forging new goals to which it could set itself. There is in this way a curious rhyme between her body of work and Morris’ far more pernicious and significantly richer one: having identified perceived limits to the cinematic enterprise, each condemned themselves to the continual recapitulation of the mistakes made by those with the gall to attempt to exceed them.

*   *   *

In the conceptual framework that holds documentaries and blockbusters at opposite poles, the generic critique of each finds common ground in a disdain for an instrumentality of both forms against the freedom possessed by everything in between. Blockbusters are designed to make money and perhaps manufacture consent. Documentary is meanwhile saddled with the utilitarian obligation to act upon the world – a condition well summarized by Bill Nichols’ location of the form within the “discourses of sobriety.”

Since the first stirrings of modernism, art has been commanded to take any form it like so long as it not serve a utilitarian obligation. During the post-war years in America, this idea was enshrined as the official aesthetic ideology of liberal capitalism by the vast bureaucratic apparatus of what Frances Stonor Saunders has called “the cultural cold war.” Through the support of C.I.A.-funded cultural institutions, elevated by C.I.A.-promoted critics, and disseminated to students in C.I.A.-designed M.F.A. programs, a once snobbish, high-cult doctrine was made a nearly universally shared common sense, and designated the chief guarantor of art’s political sovereignty. Formally complex, thematically ambiguous art and literature became the Western world’s best advertisement for capitalism against the dreary certainties of Soviet socialist realism. Every subject and every style was fit for celebration as “free expression” so long as its political commitments were subordinated to aesthetic ambitions. The sneering devaluation of the direct and didactic works of the 1930s and the wartime Popular Front – the context in which American documentary film had first fully blossomed – would serve as a warning to any art that would take political change as its primary goal. 

While the end of the Cold War brought an end to the government institutions that had bankrolled this ideology’s hegemony, its directives have not been shaken, surviving through the present day even among artists and audiences who identify with the left. Postmodernity opened a space in the pantheon for the blockbuster, but has continued to deny documentary forms that have not refused or exhausted their instrumental function. In this light, the liberal documentary starts to look a lot more interesting. Even when it was explicitly designed toward the modest amelioration of some highly specified wrong, its stubborn and uncomplicated utility could not be coherently assimilated within the aesthetic order of liberal capitalism. Even as it refused radical critique, the liberal documentary could not help but announce one of liberalism’s glaring contradictions.

Against this background, it is clear that The Act of Killing represents nothing new besides the further extension of liberalism’s depressingly familiar aesthetic standards. Like Morris’ body of work, and all the nonfiction media styles he has inspired, it defines aesthetic sophistication by the rejection of materialist methods and genuinely political interpretations in favor of generalized abstraction and humanist certainties. 

This process has been underway for some time, and it is this – rather than the critique of the liberal documentary from the left – whose culmination The Act of Killing must be seen to represent. Its preeminence indicates that documentary film may have finally reached the art-historical crossroads that Rosler identified in the documentary photography of the late-70s, in which “the boringly sociological becomes the excitingly mythological/psychological.” [15] Rather than supplant the liberal documentary, such a development refines it, fusing at long last liberal politics to liberal form.

The triumph of The Act of Killing makes it apparent that those of us invested in the political critique of the social issue documentary would do well to remember that it objects to a specifically reformist instrumentality rather than instrumentality itself. The radical potential of documentary rests in the challenge it poses to the idealist dictates of “storytelling.” It might not be particularly well suited to narrating or fully explaining history, but it is uniquely equipped to stand directly within it, speak through it, and prod its viewers into articulating their own place within it.

Godmilow’s brand of showy autocritique fails to tap into this potential. Mistaking political purity for political efficacy, it keeps the viewer focused on aesthetic issues alone, and never advances beyond media criticism to address larger historical and political concerns. Her analysis is rooted in an overweening auteurism that patronizes the viewer and sets aside the contextual questions more relevant to interpreting a given film’s real political function in favor of a schematized and abstract style of semiotic interpretation. The convergence of Oppenheimer, Morris and Godmilow is illuminating of many of the real tensions that have been ignored in recent years as a new documentary community has formed. If this community is to remain a worthwhile aesthetic and political project, these tensions must be affirmed and accelerated rather than swept under the table. 


1. “Documentary,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed May 25, 2014).

2. Benedict Anderson, “Petrus Dadi Ratu,” New Left Review 3 (May-June 2000): 5. Online at: (accessed April 30, 2014).

3. Benedict Anderson, “Impunity and Reenactment: Reflections on the 1965 Massacre in Indonesia and its Legacy,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 11, issue 15, no. 4 (April 15, 2013), (accessed May 1, 2014).

4. Errol Morris, “The Murders of Gonzago,” Slate (July 10, 2013), (accessed May 10, 2014).

5. Robert Koehler, “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias: The New Nonfiction,” Cinema Scope 40 (Fall 2009): 12-15.

6. Errol Morris, “The Ashtray: This Contest of Interpretation (Part 5),” New York Times, March 10, 2011, sec. The Opinion Pages.

7. Joel E. Siegel, “Errol Morris's Cinéma-Realité,” in Errol Morris: Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

8. Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011).

9. Alice Arshalooys Kelikian, “Film and Friendship: Werner and Errol,” in Errol Morris: Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

10. Martha Rosler, “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)” [1981], in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004), 151-206. 

11. Jill Godmilow, “What's Wrong with the Liberal Documentary,” Peace Review 11, no. 1 (March 1999): 91-98. Online at: (accessed May 1, 2014).

12. Ibid.

13. Rosler, op. cit.

14. Jill Godmilow, “Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue with ‘The Act of Killing’,” Indiewire (March 5, 2014), (accessed May 20, 2014).

15. Rosler, op. cit.

Colin Beckett is a writer based in Brooklyn. He has contributed to BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, INCITE, The L Magazine, Moving Image Source, among other publications.



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