Rooted Amidst Ruins and Rage

War, with its endless atrocities and chilling aftermath, has a way of revealing the very worst that people can do. Some of the most horrifying genocides that have been carried out throughout history, as well as in modern-day, have left us numb with sorrow and confusion as we try to comprehend the whys behind such heartless acts of hatred. Documentary filmmaking has proved a helpful tool in the process of navigating the complexities surrounding war and human nature. Some documentary films take a position while others remain strictly observational. Ultimately, however, documentary film has helped us as we approach war, both past and present, and its impact on individuals.

This week, we had the opportunity to watch two war documentaries Night and Fog and The Act of Killing. Both films explored the unfathomable realities of genocides that have marked their place in history. The films portray the impact of war in the past as well as today with commentary regarding how it has impacted the lives of those involved and humanity as a whole. As Erik Barnouw expresses in his book “Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film,” Night and Fog provided “a searing indictment” with its chilling juxtapositions of modern-day concentration camps with archival footage of the realities that happened there. This comparison gives “the film a greater impact than any other such film” has ever been able to depict (Barnouw 180). The stark juxtaposition is coupled with thoughtful narration that clearly states the filmmaker’s abhorrence with what has happened. The Act of Killing, on the other hand, takes a different approach in its exploration. Candidly exposing a number of individuals responsible for the heinous communist genocides in Indonesia in a seemingly un-filtered way, the film remarkably refrains from taking a clear position regarding the atrocities. As a result, it leaves the viewers feeling disgust and discomfort as they are left alone to grapple with what they’ve seen.

Both documentaries also explore how the genocides flourished in their day and the aftermath in the world today. With Night and Fog, the imagery for today was less harrowing because so much of what was depicted of today was mainly abandoned building structures. The Act of Killing, however, captured an ever-present sense of hostility among the Indonesian individuals responsible.

This comparison and commentary regarding war of the past and present has had an impact on me. As a religious human being who believes in the good of mankind, in an afterlife, in the eventual fulfillment of justice and mercy for all, and most significantly in a Savior who will carry out both, I have, in the very least, had an interesting experience as I’ve grappled with where I stand regarding these films. After some thinking, I’ve determined that my response is rather simple. I acknowledge the sorrow and pain I feel, and yet I choose to let it not immobilize me.

To see and read of such horrendous mentalities, actions, events, destruction, and war was an awful experience. I understand that hatred, apathy, anger, and revenge are prevalent in the world. We have lived in a world that has been this way since the very beginning. I won’t deny that. And yet I believe that there is an equal amount of good in the world. And I choose to put all of my focus there, embracing, elevating, and encouraging the beauty that comes from love. I believe that justice will be served where it is due. I sorrow for those who have been treated unjustly, for the numberless souls who have been victim to such horrifying, inhumane realities. And yet, as a spiritual viewer, my approach to these topics encompasses realities beyond this mortal life, beyond the horrors of today and the sorrows of the past. I look to a future where I know all will be well one day.

I am reminded of a lyric from musician Florence Welch in her song, “100 Years”. In this moving song, she sings, “I believe in love, and the darker it gets, the more I do. Try and fill us with your hate and we will shine a light.” This is the reaction I choose to adopt when approaching the darkness prevalent in the world. In my heart, I believe that in the end, God will carryout His will. He will assess the fate of every individual who has ever lived. He will determine it all. And so I leave it in His hands. I don’t need to carry a burden associated with the darkness of the world. As I navigate life with its ruins and rage, I choose to be rooted in this comfort and in love and hope. And that truly brings me immeasurable peace.


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Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

Redefining What We Call Real

Documentary filmmaking has maintained its remarkable and celebrated presence for decades. From the earliest of films, artists were fascinated with the new medium through which they could capture a visual representation of life around them. Pioneering filmmakers such as the Lumière brothers, Dziga Vertov, and Robert Flaherty quickly recognized the potential and power of the camera in its ability to record the unfolding of events. Over the years, many filmmakers have used documentary as a way of expressing their voices and perspectives, spreading awareness for a cause, and obtaining an authentic, unscripted depiction of the world. As the art form has evolved however, debates have surfaced regarding what qualifies a film as a documentary as well as the ethics of a filmmaker’s involvement and manipulation therein. Others have questioned whether these films are ever even completely candid. As a result, these issues and more have caused audiences to question the very definition we often ascribe documentary films and as such, our relationships with these films are complicated.

Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North has been heralded as the first feature length documentary film, and for many years audiences were amazed at the fascinating depiction he captured of indigenous Inuit Nanook and his family as they lived in Canada. On the surface, the film was monumental in its release and appears to qualify as one of the first documentary films ever created. However the truth behind much of the film introduces complicated factors that have caused many to question whether it is a documentary or fiction film. From fabricated igloo’s to achieve a well-lit interior scene, to the fact that many of Nanook’s family were cast for the film, to the reality that Nanook’s name wasn’t even his real name, much of the film was fabricated. This comes as a shock to many because we expect documentary films to be authentic and honest. And yet the truth of the matter is that many documentary films are never entirely genuine. Filmmakers introduce elements of subjectivity in the ways they tell their stories. Scenes are manipulated. Environments and individual personalities instantly change when cameras are present. Facts can be distorted. And audiences are regularly cheated.

However, none of this is to say that documentary filmmaking is an unethical endeavor. It simply requires that our definition of documentary filmmaking cannot hold onto the belief that every film in the genre will depict a pure, authentic, objective reality. Many films are altered, edited, and adjusted for various purposes, often skewing reality, even if, for example, by small measures of chronology. Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera reminds us of this aspect of filmmaking when within the film itself it pulls out to reveal an editor cutting strips of footage we see moments later. (See photo below)  It is a startling, unconventional moment that makes the audience fully aware of the fact that they are watching a work that has been edited and altered.

What, then, can our definition of documentary filmmaking be if we recognize that there will always be an element of manipulation within the work? Author Bill Nichols provides a particularly accurate definition, stating, “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework” (Nichols 10). John Grierson postulates that documentary films are creative treatments of reality (Nichols 5). Ultimately, as documentary film viewers, it is vital we recognize that artists will alter and adjust their work. Such is the nature of a medium that facilitates subjective expression, even in documentary filmmaking.

For decades, audiences have felt comfortable with the idea that all documentary films are depictions of pure reality. The genre of documentary filmmaking and the name itself seem to suggest this very thing. However, it is from the very first feature film within this genre, Nanook of the North, that we quickly realize this may not always be the case. Documentary films, rather than being completely real in their depictions of everyday life, are often adjusted, edited, crafted and created in such a way that it removes itself from being 100% genuine. Not surprisingly, this has caused us to reassess what qualifies a film as being a documentary. The debate is alive, even today. And still, regardless of whether we deem a film to be entirely authentic or not, as audience members, we will forever admire the genre for the way it allows for advocacy, exploration, and expression. Just as the early documentary filmmakers who helped birth this compelling genre, we too believe such aims are something worth pursuing.

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Works Cited

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, 2017.