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The Killing Fields: A Filmic Inquiry into Violence

By mary moylan

Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence
Editors: Joram Ten Brink & Joshua Oppenheimer
New York: Wallflower Press, Columbia University Press
$25.00, 330 pps.
ISBN 978-0-231-16335-4      


On the heels of his acclaimed documentary The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has co-edited and contributed to Killer Images, a volume of scholarly essays and interviews, reflective of his own filmic inquiry into the routinized mechanisms of violence as well as the imaginations that beget this violence in society and cinema.  Part of a larger research project entitled "Genocide and Genre," Killer Images is the latest release by the Nonfictions series from Wallflower Press. Together with the support from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Westminster, Oppenheimer credits the Vision Machine Film Collective for contributing to the collaborative exploration for this book.

Within these pages, you may find a timely resource for researchers; strong filmic interpretations—accented by careful, mise en scene analysis—are employed alongside an erudite chronicling of the holocaust documentary genre, for example. Emerging documentarians will benefit from interviews with such celebrated filmmakers as Errol Morris and Rithy Panh, to name a few. Cinema's unique abilities to function as a tool for articulating histories of political violence and operate as an actor in these histories are depicted here with a relevant urgency. In the words of Joram Ten Brink, co-editor and contributor to this book, "Cinema is often directly implicated in the imagination and machinery of mass violence. Thus, if the cinematic image and mass violence are two defining features of modernity, the former is significantly implicated in the latter."   

In an interview conducted by Oppenheimer, Morris discusses his 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure and exposes a problematic cultural condition: the misunderstanding of photographic images, attributed in large part to the impact images have on us, the ways in which we deal with them and the wrongful inferences we make from them. "Standard Operating Procedure is about how we can't make those kinds of inferences," Morris asserts. "The Abu Ghraib photographs are a perfect example of that sort of thing. We think we've seen Abu Ghraib and we think we've seen the crimes that were committed at Abu Ghraib, when in fact what we've seen is a couple of hundred images which were taken during a very restricted period of time on Tier 1A of the prison during the fall of 2003."

Next, as Oppenheimer hones in on the trajectory of Morris's film efforts over the years to deal with movie images, television and photography, he addresses how these are implicated in how we see ourselves and ultimately, our social responses to violence. Referencing an on-camera interview with Emily Miller, an eyewitness to the murder examined in Morris' 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, Oppenheimer posits, "And what your film reveals is that the detective movies that Emily Miller watched seemed to have conditioned her to what she thinks she saw. I had this feeling that these ingrained habits of seeing had very, very serious consequences. Indeed, they were going to cause Randall Adams to be killed." Morris' response reveals that we are all in a position to confabulate and conflate different realities-something he attributes to the proliferation of media sources. 

Oppenheimer links these misperceptions in The Thin Blue Line with those in Standard Operating Procedure: "That misperception of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which was encouraged by the government, has led us to misperceive ourselves, and our complicity or involvement or engagement in what happened and what was continuing to happen when the film was released. In the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, top administrative personnel concocted and promulgated the bad-apple narrative to help us fill in the gaps between and around each photo, thereby transforming photographic evidence of what in fact was a vast pre-meditated and institutionally sanctioned crime into a tool in the cover-up of that same crime. The irony is that photographic evidence of a crime became tools in a cover-up, and allegories for the visible become mechanisms of blindness." Drawing comparisons to Mark Twain and to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Morris likens this story of Abu Ghraib to the true stuff of nightmares.

In Oppenheimer's interview with filmmaker Panh, we learn of the layering effects of the uses of photographs in his documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine. Once again, Oppenheimer takes us on a detailed journey through the filmmaker's processes, and methods of an excavation—of what happened and of people's memories. Describing a key element of the mechanisms of genocide—that of the guard's actions of photographing each victim prior to interrogating them within S21—Panh points to the dehumanizing effect upon them. "To have an effective genocide, it's very difficult to kill a human being," he notes. "But if you take away the identity of that human being, if you dehumanize that human being, it's much easier for that machine to work effectively.

"In making the film, the dead were with me always," he continues. "The very fact that I am here, to a certain degree, suggests that somebody left a place for me. So, my job is to transmit to the following generation what happened, but also not for them to feel guilty for what happened."

Finally, Oppenheimer and Panh discuss the upcoming trials in Cambodia for some of the perpetrators. For Panh observing the tribunal process has afforded him a deeper insight into documentary filmmaking: "If you want to make a good documentary, it's much more important to spend your time observing what happens, what people say, what people understand sometimes and what they cannot understand sometimes."

Grappling with the visual representation of violence in the Holocaust documentary, filmmaker/educator Brian Winston delivers in his essay a sound chronicling of the genre and points to the problems of the archive—expressly, misrepresentation. Winston categorizes the existing realist factual holocaust footage into three areas: the modicum of amateur material, some of which has been reworked, for example, by film essayist Peter Forgacs; the deliberately misleading Nazi films of the ghettos; and Allied footage of the liberation of the concentration camps—the most disturbing footage of all, in Winston's view. "Here are the living skeletons, the bulldozed bodies and the emotionless faces of the guards," he writes. "Here is the indelible record of the consequences of otherwise unimaginable violence, the very fons et origio of our collective visual memory of the holocaust."  

Winston makes the distinction of the claims of the images as being misleading, yet it is still not to deny their authenticity. As with Morris' films, the question of the limitations of photographs as evidence arises, but by contrast, they mislead due to an absence of other photographs, and cannot possibly represent the whole of the die Endlosung. Winston reminds us of Claude Lanzmann's strategy in his 1985 film Shoah, favoring witness statements over the inclusion of any liberation footage. "This was as much determined by necessity as by any self-imposed Bilderverbot," Winston explains.  "Shoah is specifically about the extermination camps, of which there is no footage; Lanzmann's strategy is, first and foremost, a response to this absence of imagery." 

Theory meets practice in Killer Images in an especially effective way as these cutting-edge contributions prove; documentary theory is moving away from traditional film theory and toward a more phenomenological treatment that reflects necessary applications of archives.

Mary Moylan is a San Francisco-based writer and independent scholar. She has a professional background in documentary film production, and has worked with the George Lucas Educational Foundation on Web documentaries about public education. She is currently writing a book, Unstable Intersections: The Films of Lourdes Portillo. Follow Mary on her blog, Docuthinker, at