“Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence” Book Review

The documentary world has been talking about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing for a while now, and the buzz has grown since the film’s recent Oscar nomination, although it didn’t win.  The film, reviewed for the blog here, provides important historical testimony for those invested in uncovering a more truthful and complete history of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66.  But it has fascinated general audiences, some of whom previously knew next to nothing about Indonesia, for its innovative ability to depict and analyze the role imagination—more specifically a cinematic imagination—plays in acts of mass violence.

This central issue steers not only Oppenheimer’s filmic work but also his recent edited anthology Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence, published by Columbia University’s Wallflower Press in 2012, and co-edited by Joram Ten Brink, also a filmmaker and film scholar.

The essays in the book grapple with the problematic and yet often intimate relationship between acts of mass violence and moving images across a range of historical periods and film genres, claiming that both are defining features of modernity.  As I wondered in my last post for this blog, the book argues that increasing access to footage of both graphically imagined and real violence does not necessarily signal a democratization of public discourse about violence and power, nor a deeper engagement of film with processes of witnessing, interrupting, or even memorializing violence in the sake of justice. In fact, it might perpetuate more violence. If viewers of The Act of Killing were horrified to learn that main character Anwar Congo got his inspiration for his swaggering murderous persona and various killing techniques from Hollywood, Killer Images points out that he was not alone: the movie Rambo, the prime time series 24, and other cinematic productions have been stoking violent fantasies, kindling murderous desires, and offering scripts for annihilation that have been mobilized in atrocities carried out from Sierra Leone to Guantanamo (KI, p. 2).

To trace these and other effects of the cinematic imagination and depiction of violence on real-life brutality, the editors have commissioned and drawn together new work from internationally renowned filmmakers and scholars concerned with the representation of a number of violent events including the Holocaust, the Iraq war, the Cambodian genocide, the siege of Sarajevo, and the torture at Abu Ghraib. The book features essays and interviews, in which documentary, feature film, and even video games are addressed.

The thematic content is organized to tackle two main questions, namely: how films influence acts of violence and how past violence is represented and made to function in the present.  In answering these questions, the chapters are grouped into four main sections.

“(De)Activating Empathy” investigates the effects of depictions of violence coming from conflict zones and the potential gulf between their intentions and their effects.  Rather than inherently kindling empathy or intervention, these images can also paradoxically exacerbate conflict or desensitize viewers, forestalling action.  In this section, Thomas Keenan compares the depictions of violence in Somalia and Sarajevo to analyze when or why the emotion of the image facilitates direct action and when or why it seems to breed a voyeuristic paralysis. There are also chapters on the affinities between the camera and the gun (the makers of recent hit documentary The Square noticed this too and are using it in their publicity), the use of virtual reality in both preparing soldiers for battle and administering exposure therapy for their PTSD, and a discussion of the New Latin America Cinema in the 1960’s.

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“Memory of Violence: Visualizing Trauma” discusses visual strategies used to depict acts of historical violence already associated with ossifying trauma narratives and tropes. Holocaust imagery, animated representations of violence in the Middle East in the film Waltz With Bashir, and classic films by Kurasawa and Godard are discussed.


“Battle for History: Appropriating the Past in the Present” looks further at how contemporary filmmakers use narratives of past trauma to do political and social work in the present. Included are an interview with documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi, two chapters on cinematic re-enactment, one on the reclaiming of mug shots taken during the Cambodian genocide in international art exhibits, and “Screening the 1965 Violence” by Ariel Heryanto.

Heryanto reviews the small archive of films about the mass killings of 1965-66 to challenge the idea that silence about the mass killings has been solely due to Suharto’s oppressive regime.  Indeed, Suharto fell over a decade ago, and public discourse or debate about 1965 remains meager.  Heryanto argues that this absence in part hinges on the changing culture of media consumption and production: to put it bluntly, ‘65 isn’t “relevant” because, after those many years of silence, aging survivors and activists don’t know how to present the issue in a way that might compel the attention of newly affluent young Indonesians, who are living in an oversaturated media environment and more interested in “selfies” than old injustices.

Heryanto’s argument is dismaying and yet rings true. Perhaps plain testimony isn’t enough, and a “cinematic imagination” does not just influence acts of violence but is now a prerequisite to gaining some congress on justice, reparations, or even public acknowledgement. Cinematic skill and media savvy is required to make people care about anything: in other words, whether or not it sits comfortably from an ethical perspective, contemporary culture requires a packaging and presentation of victimization and violence that goes beyond content. This is partially what this blog is arguing and what the work of a specifically visual psychological anthropology has to offer the field; it is also what has made Oppenheimer’s work so successful in finally bring the Indonesian mass killings to international screen: despite issues that some scholars might take with his work, his clever and masterful “play within a play” structure has people taking notice.

A number of the five essays in the last section, “Performing Violence” continue to focus on the Indonesian mass killings, an unsurprising focus given the volume’s co-editor. Benedict Anderson’s chapter on impunity presents concise yet compelling historical information and cultural analysis about the events, Oppenheimer’s chapter provides a further glimpse into both the cinematic imaginations of Sumatran perpetrators and his own in-depth fieldwork prior to the release of The Act of Killing that clearly informed his method. This chapter will be especially appreciated by his ever-growing audience of fans and would make an excellent reading assignment for those who plan to teach his film in their classes.  There are also interviews with filmmaker greats Rithy Panh, who made the 2014 Oscar-nominated film The Missing Picture, and Errol Morris about their respective work.

Many of the pieces in this book will be of interest and relevance to historians, filmmakers, cultural studies scholars, media and area studies specialists.  It could be taught alongside Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, updating the discussion for the Instagram age. The individual chapters are pithy but brief and so lend themselves well to inclusion in undergraduate course readers, and students will enjoy the addition of interviewers with filmmakers.  An added bonus is that the works address the various psychological, social, and political effects of making and watching images of violence seriously but accessibly, without overusing film studies, psychoanalytic or other specialized jargon. This will provide a useful framework for students to think and talk critically about the production and consumption of violent moving images.

Annie Tucker

Annie Tucker writes, translates, and edits diverse content on the various intersections of culture, personal experience, disability, and the arts. Her work has been recognized by support from the PEN America Center and the Southeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies, among others. She has worked for Elemental Productions since 2009 and recently received her PhD from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures|Dance.

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