Documentary filmmakers are given the unique opportunity to bring to light the most beautiful truths or the darkest abysses of mankind. Although it can be incredibly excruciating to watch, war documentaries can present realities within our history. This week our class had the opportunity to watch two war documentary films –Night and Fog, focused on the heartless concentration camps during WWII, and The Act of Killing, following gang members who had been in charge of eliminating communists in Indonesia many years ago. Both of these films didn’t shy away from displaying the horrors of genocide, and consequently as someone with a sensitive spirit and exceptionally weak stomach, who never watches films like these, this week was extremely difficult. Emotions aside, it is interesting as a film student, to be exposed to this horrific content and try to analyze both films for what they are, documentations of reality.
As class was being dismissed, Scott asked us how these films had affected us spiritually, especially as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a world where there is evident unkindness, the Church remains a source of peace and hope, emulating the example of the Savior as He was always encouraging the extension of love and kindness toward others. So as I try to follow this mentality and practice within my life, it’s hard to put into words how my spirit felt being exposed to such morbid images and cruel sentiments. And to be quite honest, I had to look down a lot throughout both films. It can be easy to let that negativity weigh you down, but there is power and health in rising above it and not letting it touch your spirit.
I’ve thought a lot about the difference between Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais, and The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. One major distinction between the two is the way they chose to tell their stories. Resnais approached the genocide of World War II with clear condemnation and disapproval, by implementing his opinion through an omniscient narration. The narration felt separated from the past, yet critical and reproachful of the choices that had been made. Erik Barnouw, author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film wrote about the techniques used within Night and Fog, saying. “Resnais made brilliant use of a simple device: frequent shifts between black-and-white archive footage of the extermination camps, and sequences in warm color filmed in the verdant surroundings of a former camp” (Barnouw 180). By separating the past horrors from the present day, viewers were able to ache for the lives lost, yet know that these dismaying actions were long gone in the past (See images below). On the other hand, set many years later, in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer brings us face to face with killers as they gloat about their choices and reenact the past. It’s shocking to witness and hear the things these men say. And as Oppenheimer remains detached from the scene, the gang members are able to tell their absurd story the way they want it told, essentially giving the audience the choice to choose how they feel. There was one moment within the film however, that I thought spoke leaps and bounds. As the gang members are being interviewed on live television, with a supporting audience in rapture, Oppenheimer inserts a short dialog between the camera operators behind the scenes as they gawk in disbelief at the horrible lives these men are leading. This small insert proves to the audience that not every person within reach of the gangsters was supportive of their genocide. Although it was a subtle inclusion, I believe it tells a lot about the world surrounding these gangsters. Resnais and Oppenheimer both represented the horrific reality of the worlds they were displaying, yet in their own distinct and unique way.
War documentaries are rarely delicate. They embrace their duty to tell the truth of the past, no matter how horrifying. As a viewer, it was very disheartening to watch such heavy scenes play out, but once audience members realize that these documentary filmmakers are simply documenting the truth that has occurred, we are able to appreciate the different ways these filmmakers chose to tell their stories. Alain Resnais, director of Night and Fog, used authentic footage from the past to emphasize the cruelty real-life individuals had to face. Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing, documented the living killers as they shared their absurd points of view. Both approaches of documentary proved to be extremely powerful and memorable. As they do their job to document, we must do our job and chose how we will react.
Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Second Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 1983.