Documenting the Holocaustal Event: Fantastical Reenactment in The Missing Picture and The Act of Killing (Excerpt from Master's Thesis)
Bill Nichols’s essay, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject,” dissects the diverse approaches to reenactment in documentary films, while maintaining that this use of conceptualized signifiers and restagings epitomize the documentary mode’s fantasmatic elements. These reenactments lack an indexical bond to the original event that they attempt to depict; however, Nichols asserts that the reenactment “draws its fantasmatic power from this very fact” (Nichols 2008, 73). These constructed representations locate alternative methods of engaging past events, by means of which filmmakers can shift their discursive frame—unearthing truths, perspectives, and questions that observational representations may miss. Nichols reinforces the reenactment’s distinct ability to reframe and reprocess events through summarizing the arguments of the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson:
Reenactments occupy a strange status in which it is crucial that they be recognized as a representation of a prior event while also signaling that they are not a representation of a contemporaneous event… when representations take on a meaning that is not their usual meaning, it may signify a shift from one discursive frame to another rather than the simple addition of connotations (Nichols 2008, 73).
Such a representation that moves beyond its “usual meaning” has an undoubted connection to a prior event despite its lack of an indexical or causal bond, yet the performed restaging need not merely stand in and act as a placeholder for the perpetually absent, lost event—rather it has the ability to shift the discursive framework, to actively revise history (Nichols 2008, 73). The reenactment as a cinematic tool or method is not only utilized as a supplement to or in support of observational and indexical evidence; rather the restaging of events can reclaim and reorient accepted, historical narratives—often resituating the historical through subjective, personal remembrance or description. Thus, the fantasy of the reenactment is “not the mere retrieval of something past, not the recovery of a real object… the signifier bears an emotional weight”(Nichols 2008, 76). Reenactment often does not attempt to simply replicate a lost temporal occurrence or even concern itself with verisimilitude—it is impossible to recover the past—rather emotional accuracy and subjective concepts and declarations become the documentary filmmaker’s central focuses.
The pioneering filmmaker and scholar who coined the term documentary— John Grierson—from the outset of the mode, understood the journalistic authority of documentary as a “malleable truth” that was certainly contingent on subjective components (Corrigan 2011, 658). While the subject of the documentary film is extracted from “natural life” or a “living article,” the mode derives its meaning from the “creative shaping” of such “natural material” (Grierson 2011, 660-661). While the documentary filmmaker “photograph[s] the natural life…[he] also by juxtaposition of detail create[s] an interpretation of it” (Grierson 2011, 661). Thus, for Grierson himself, the term “documentary” was problematic from the start, because at its best, documentary film does not document reality; rather it is “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson as quoted in Cowie 2011, 19). While scholar Brian Winston argues in his book, Claiming the Real, that this description ought to also apply to fictional cinema, Grierson’s original phrasing exposes one of the most fundamental discursive crises of the mode: the projected journalistic authority onto the documentary. While fictional and documentary motion picture films both creatively shape actuality—photographic imagery with a causal relation to the real—documentary alone has a direct association with “real life” and the consequential journalistic component. In simple terms, “a documentary tells a story about real life, with claims to truthfulness,” yet conversely, “there is no way to make a film without manipulating the information” (Aufderheide 2007, 2). All live action cinema has undoubtedly some connection to the real; however, the documentary mode is often assigned a sense of journalistic responsibility, which can be a problematic coupling. It is commonplace for the average film viewer to criticize or applaud a documentary film based on its “objectivity.” While the documentary is born out of natural scenes and people, it is indeed a subjective construction and journalistic authority need not always be its central priority. Grierson hailed the mode’s ability to construct both narrative and creative expression through the use of real material, asserting “in its [documentary’s] use of the living article, there is also an opportunity to perform creative work” (Grierson 2011, 660). Throughout the history of the documentary, narrativization and creative shaping of real material have been the very foundation of the mode—thus, the subjective techniques of reenactment and performative stagings are not recent, revolutionary methods, they decidedly reconcile with Grierson’s earliest principles of the documentary mode.
Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is widely considered one of the earliest documentary masterpieces, in which Flaherty attempts to capture the daily lives and customs of the Inuit people. The filmmaker; however, directed his Inuit subjects much like actors in a fictional film, having them hunt a walrus with wooden spears—an already long obsolete method—and portraying them as ignorant of modern technology, despite them being familiar with such equipment. Nanook was not even the real name of the film’s central protagonist, and the Inuit family members portrayed were not actually related, but were rather assembled by the director (Aufderheide 2007, 2).
Thus, this performative, controlled staging—similar to that of the reenactment—was central to the earliest documentary filmmakers. While numerous contemporary film scholars find Nanook of the North problematic, partially because Flaherty did not explicitly acknowledge the staged nature of his film, the reenactment can lay bare the calculated nature of such techniques. While documentary relies on creative shaping of natural material, the reenactment often acknowledges the distance between the representation and the signified past event. Thus, when the documentary filmmaker outwardly acknowledges a sequence as a reenactment, they surface the very complexities and fraught dynamics of the documentary form—the clash between journalistic integrity and artistic license. Some contemporary documentary filmmakers continue to push the representational capacity of the reenactment through films that expose the shortcomings of strict observation—a method that is still dictated by bias and creative shaping—and rather embrace a liberated reenactment unmarried to temporal events. Rather than hide their performative methods with verisimilar aesthetics—a tactic that echoes Flaherty’s original impulse to obscure his simulated approach—these filmmakers exaggerate the distance between signifier and signified. Their stagings rely on defamiliarizing aesthetics that by their very nature acknowledge the subjectivity of the documentary mode, while simultaneously questioning a trust in observational evidence. One of the challenging and delicate examples of this nuanced approach to reenactment documentary that Nichols identifies is what Michael Renov coins as the ”work of mourning”(Renov 2004, 121)—films which through reenactment directly confront a sense of loss or a past and now unknowable tragedy:
A lost object haunts the film. The attempt to conjure that specter, to make good that loss, signals the mark of desire. What constitutes a lost object is as various as all the objects toward which desire may flow. Such efforts encompass attempts to make good a trauma, perhaps a death or catastrophe (Nichols 2008, 74).
Thus, while the performative nature of reenactment is prevalent at the very origins of documentary, the technique has been reworked to confront the fraught subjects ingrained in Renov’s “works of mourning” and to locate within them a sense of catharsis. This attempt to redeem a loss or a deep injustice is rooted in a desire to unearth meaning that cannot be captured through observational methods—it requires a rethinking or a reimagining. It may be that this can only be born out of a personal and often unorthodox testimony or vision. Two contemporary, inventive documentaries—Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (2013) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012)—have exploited and pushed this revised method of reenactment as they challenge what constitutes a historical documentary and unearth new aesthetical modes that rethink and rework the evolving notions of truth, history, and collective memory. While reenactment is an accepted and widespread technique of the mode, these contemporary films do not hide the mode’s reliance on an authorial influence and control, as they bring their performative strategies to the surface. Precisely, the two films rely on an intrinsic defamiliarization—distancing themselves from their fraught, unknowable subject matters. Panh restages his personal memories of the 1975-1979 Cambodian Genocide with clay figurines, while Oppenheimer allows the perpetrators of the 1965-1966 Indonesia Killings to perform and reenact their actions during the atrocity. Both distinct approaches result in a decidedly distorted, stylized vision of the past, yet paradoxically, they locate and afford closeness to their nearly incomprehensible violence and unknowable historical events. Moreover, these filmmakers attempt to transcend accepted collective memories and to correct the deep misunderstandings of these events through reverting to more subjective, personal testimony. This revised approach to reenactment can carve out a place for memory and personal remembrance within historical practice, as it locates an alternative method of engaging with past events.
The filmmakers’ trust in performative modes and iconic representations can conversely reframe indexical imagery, instilling it with new meanings that actively reject accepted historical narratives—affording an unprecedented closeness to unrepresentable experiences and almost incomprehensible imagery. This method can be aggressive, as seen when Panh superimposes his molded clay figurines—his unique, personal renderings of the past event—directly onto propagandistic news reels, confronting the viewer with the horror of the indexical. This clash is most striking when Panh superimposes a screaming clay version of himself hunched in the fetal position over a frenzy of Khmer Rouge propagandistic imagery and footage of the orchestrated killings. The pain and horror communicated through this clay figure expose the brutality of the event—a visceral pain that is decidedly absent from the stale newsreel footage. This juxtaposition could be said to counter a mass desensitization in the digital age—restoring consequence to the indexical image and refusing an indifferent, emotionless signifier for such a fraught past event. While Panh’s renderings assertively reclaim the narratives of the past events from the oppressors, Oppenheimer allows the perpetrators to openly spew their ideology and to construct their vision of both the past events and present day Indonesia. Furthermore, the killers prove to be proud to present their story, believing their violent acts were foundational in the formation of Indonesia’s current democracy, and are thus endorsed by both domestic and Western powers. Oppenheimer’s film was received with controversy, prompting vehement backlashes from some critics and scholars who questioned the ethics of giving killers a platform and dignifying their brutally nonchalant depictions of violence; however, one could argue that the blatant onscreen boastfulness of the killers unearths a lingering injustice that still dictates modes of control and social hierarchies in contemporary Indonesia. Thus, while Panh’s reenactments permit the viewer to look backward—to rethink how controlled narratives distort our perception of historical events, Oppenheimer exposes how these narratives continue to oppress victims long after the killings have stopped. The perpetrators of the mass killings remain in power, and the national hierarchy refuses to acknowledge its brutal past. The general Indonesian population remains subjugated by these powers, and thus, is afraid to openly rethink the morality of these killings. Oppenheimer’s film allows the powerful to mediate the viewer’s access to the past events. This mediation—how the perpetrators see themselves, their actions, and their victims—exposes the current state of Indonesia in such a visceral fashion, unobtainable through observational modes. The film not only confronts widespread impunity, its reenactments visualize a society dictated by fear—a state of denial in which healing from such an atrocity is impossible.
Both of these films employ the fantasmatic of reenactment to distinct ends, yet their common ability to confront the unknowable exposes the contradictions and frequent misunderstandings of the documentary (Nichols 2008, 79). As both early and contemporary scholars have argued, the documentary is a fluid, “malleable” mode that can never achieve an “objective” realism—the mode becomes most effective and dynamic when it abandons this misguided aim. Surfacing the subjective nature of the mode through overly poetic techniques—like the fantasmatic reenactment—liberates the documentary from the rigid restraints of journalistic observation. While a footing in a reality or truthfulness is vital for the mode, artistic license unhampered by subservience to solely indexical or factual evidence allows for an exploration into meaning and narratives that are specific to the documentary mode. The objective documentary cannot exist, and the observational documentary must operate within a defined rubric; however, subjectivity and poetic methods have the ability to push the mode forward. Moreover, film scholar Elizabeth Cowie succinctly articulates why a “factual” documentary cinema is not only unexpressive, but also impossible:
The facts, in fact, cannot speak for themselves. Rather, we make them “speak” by our contextual knowledge and understanding within specific institutional and social frames…“objectivity” itself is a construct of thought in relation to materiality (Cowie 2011, 26).
Meaning is not contained within materiality—what we see or touch—it is not waiting to be mined out and exposed to the world by documentary filmmakers, rather meaning is located through an organization of symbolic systems—context, speech, and imagery. Cowie later expands on how documentary does not locate a singular reality; rather it rewrites accepted narratives and reframes the perspective of an event. As she explains:
…documentary film may engage us in the surreal of reality, whereby something slips as we try to “make sense” of what we see and hear, and a little bit of the real appears, undoing subjectivity as unified, engaging our imaginative remaking of our understanding in a seeing differently, a seeing anew (Cowie 2011, 137).
This “seeing anew” is central to the objectives of both Oppenheimer and Panh, as they both counter accepted, dominant narratives, while simultaneously, almost permitting access to the incomprehensible and the unknowable.
- Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: October 2007.
- Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. “First Principles of Documentary: Preface.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, editors. Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston, 2011.
- Cowie, Elizabeth. Recording Reality, Desiring the Real. University of Minnesota Press: 2011.
- Grierson, John. “First Principles of Documentary.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, editors. Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston, 2011.
- Nichols, Bill. “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, No. 1. The University of Chicago Press: 2008.
- Renov, Michael. “Filling up the Hole in the Real: Death and Mourning in Contemporary Documentary Film and Video” The Subject of Documentary. University of Minnesota Press: 2004, pp. 121.