To Intervene or Not to Intervene: Documentary Filmmakers’ Dilemma

There is a moment in The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013) that has troubled me more than the rest of the film. In this scene which takes place in Adi’s car, Oppenheimer’s voice suddenly erupts from behind the camera to challenge some of the protagonist’s claims about murder, justice, and so on. This is a clear breach of the observational mode, thus I’m not sure I agree with Michael Meneghetti’s recent presentation at FSAC citing the film as purely observational (“The Perpetrator’s Scenario: Acts of Killing and Remorse in Contemporary Documentary,” June 2, 2015). The film perhaps sits uncomfortably among observational, participatory, and reflexive modes in what I would call a new mode of popular consumption documentary, albeit of the best sort. The question I want to ask is why it is only this one moment that the director breaks his silence, for he is addressed by the protagonists a number of times throughout the film.

It might be appropriate to attempt a guess and, if I’m correct, this adds a new dimension to documentary filmmaking that will clearly separate the auteurs from the average practitioner. It has to do with the ethics of documentary filmmaking and the question of when to intervene – my interest in the filmmaker’s intervention is not so much to save or rescue or allow subjects to withhold certain information, etc. An intervention, at the best of times, is meaningful when the filmmaker realizes his subjects’ performance for the camera has gone too far into the theatrical, the subject performing too much for the invisible audience. Oppenheimer allows Anwar his comical performances; something is revealed in his antics. When Adi begins to speak of his atrocities and the punishment he does not deserve, here Oppenheimer’s checks on his subject to establish the validity of Adi’s statements. The director states and restates Adi’s frightful remarks and challenges him on whether he truly believes them. I see here that Oppenheimer is aware of the extent that documentary subjects perform; Adi may have been acting tough for the camera, so Oppenheimer’s voice checks in with both his performer and the audience to mark the possible negative influence of the camera. Unfortunately Adi appears sincere about rejoicing in his past crimes.

Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s Hot Girls Wanted (2015) highlights my concern about filmmaker intervention. It turns Tressa Silguero’s life into a story of the camera. At the beginning of the film and of Tressa’s brief stint as a porn performer, she performs her enthusiasm for her new career. Her aspiring porn actresses all chime in at the same time – they are all happy with the freedom and money. (The men know better, of course, telling audiences that amateurs last a few weeks or months at best.) If we follow Tressa’s narrative arc closely, we need to ask the question of whether the shaming eye of the camera influenced her decision to leave the porn industry. On the one hand there is the camera that she performs for while at work and, on the other, there is the documentary camera that then films her performing at work. These two technologies, albeit the same, carry divergent moral implications (and thus Hot Girls Wanted is belittled for its moralizing qualities).

So, the documentary camera may produce a feeling of shame, a non-porn audience watching her not so shameful performances. At the beginning of her story, Tressa introduces us to Kendall, her new boyfriend who, at the time, was apparently fine with her career. Alas, the nice man has gotten everything he wants from Tressa, so he turns the tables and begins to shame her. There is no question about Kendall’s motives; there is no working together to get her out of porn (if she even wants it) or trying to better her status as a porn performer – rather, Kendall likens her to a sex worker and she simply backs down and out of his abuse by agreeing with him. The camera and the boyfriend shame her.

At the end of the film, Kendall and Tressa’s mother essentially confront and trap Tressa into quitting porn. She did not come to this resolution herself; Kendall, her mother, and camera stand as witnesses to her dirty and shameful career. This is the key sequence for the question of whether a filmmaker intervenes. We know that Kendall was once fine with her career and now switches gears; we know that mothers are troubling figures to deal with; we know the camera acts as a voyeur on her career as porn performer. Here, Bauer or Gradus should intervene and remind Kendall of his past promise, and remind Tressa and her mother that they are still being filmed – knowing the power of the camera, a voice should have suddenly erupted to check in with the subjects to bring out what really might be happening under the surface: Kendall is a manipulative man, the mother uses her tears to sway her daughter, and Tressa is too young and sensitive to rally a fight against Kendall’s patriarchy and an unethical approach to documentary cinema.

These two cases, The Act of Killing and Hot Girls Wanted, stand at opposite poles of filmmakers’ intervention; the one is a product of someone concerned with his subjects and the power of the camera, the other interested in drama and without a care for documentary performance and ethics.

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