Can something be both political and poetic?
What is the role of formal experimentation in political documentary?
There are documentaries that are political and there are documentaries that are poetic. When separated into two distinct types of documentary film they seem completely different from each other, with political documentaries generally perceived as being straightforward with factual information being presented in a linear narrative. On the other hand, poetic documentaries are usually a little more experimental, with rhetorical techniques used to provoke raw emotion within the audience. With human interest and emotion being a driving force for change within society, filmmakers often attempt to meld the two together in the hope that the emotion provoked through poetic technique will humanize often-complicated political topics and initiate change. Proved difficult, the idea raises the question of whether something can be both political and poetic, and if so what is the role of formal experimentation in political documentary?
The Act of Killing (2012) is a film that proves useful as an example when discussing whether a film can be both political and poetic, and what the role of formal experimentation in political documentary is. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, the film centres around the individuals who took part in the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. A film on such a topic would be expected to have its basis in factual information surrounding the events and to be very politically charged. However, the film relies heavily on rhetoric and symbolism in order to engage their audience, with the perpetrators of the killings heavily involved in the making of the film and even determining the way they are represented at times. In a particularly disturbing scene, now elderly gangster Anwar Congo returns to the location of many of the killings and re-enacts the way he would end countless individuals lives. He’s nonchalant about it, joking and laughing. The formal segment of the interview/re-enactment seems to end but we are still watching Anwar as he reflects on what he had done there in the past. The audience expects remorse but instead we are faced with the incredibly uncomfortable image of Anwar as he starts to dance. He is literally dancing on the graves of his victims, and the camera lingers for an awkward amount of time in order to really let us feel the emotional impact of that we are watching. Such an intensely political subject is represented in a way that the audience can understand, rather than the confusion that often comes with facts, dates and archival footage that aren’t contextualized in an emotional matter. Although The Act of Killing is more concerned with the perpetrators of the crimes committed in Indonesia rather than the political basis that prompted such events, the film remains a political documentary.