Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary film The Act of Killing is yet another confrontation with the central philosophical problem of our recent history. Immediately, we are seduced by the content of the film: former gangsters for the government of Indonesia, after describing their story, reenact the murder of hundreds of communists using traditional cinematic techniques (and they appear to get off on it). Already, the content of the film has divided film critics, most of whom have resorted to normative frameworks for their assessment. Some critics have even called for a boycott of the film at film festivals and awards ceremonies.
We should not join the ranks of the moralists and call for a boycott of the film. Perhaps there is something much more profound about the film that is worth examining. It is not that the content (the story) is not important. Indeed it is, but the normative question is simply not the correct grounding for philosophical meditation. The question we are asking here is the wrong question: it ought not be ‘is this film ethical?’ but rather, ‘from where does this film obtain its ambiguous ethical grounding?’
Enough about content, what have we to write about the form of the film?
It is the form of the film which presents a revolution of film-making within the world of documentary cinema. Consider the traditional Hollywood form: the narrative is presented as such, that is, the narrative is presented as pure fiction. The seduction of the fiction of Hollywood cinema appeals to us precisely because we are capable of being absorbed by it. Moreover, fictional cinema works us over completely – within the grand fictions of Hollywood we fight to find some reality in it all. Within the theatre, who among us has not heard the question shot from the back row: “they expect us to believe this horseshit?” This is the subjective struggle of Hollywood cinema. The power of Hollywood cinema comes as a result of its ability to suspend our disbelief: when we find reality within the cinema form, we have been won over by the narrative.
But documentary cinema functions different. The power of the documentary form reverses the power of cinema. The genius of The Art of Killing comes as a consequence of its momentary lapses into fiction. Indeed, I would even claim that it is precisely because of its lapse into fiction that it rescues a dieing cinematic form of expression (i.e., the documentary, by now is for aging middle-class liberal do-gooders). In other words, we begin with the raw reality of the situation. The main characters are really murderers, they really get off on staging their murders. This horseshit really happened. The grip that the documentary form has on us is to engage us at the level of our cynicism over the fictional lapses. There is always some wise guy who, after watching the film, writes on their facebook wall: “how can they even think about fictionalizing this brutal reality?” Is this not a variation of the question: “How can they break from the reality of the situation?”
I think that it is hardly coincidental that The Act of Killing screens during the time of the philosophical preoccupation with realism. Today’s challenge is similar to the challenge we all face when we watch the film: not to succumb to the temptation toward spectacular narrative but to remain at the level of reality as such. Indeed, the film forcibly returns us to the real. But this is not enough. The radical position is not to stage a confrontation between this film and the spectacular fictional films of Hollywood — that is, to debate the centrality of reality within the narrative itself via the suspension of disbelief — but rather to remain within the Borromean orientation by asserting the mutuality of positions: Hollywood’s Real (Imaginary-Real) is not the same as The Act of Killing‘s Real (Real-Imaginary), even while they are part of a shared topology.
Levi Bryant has argued that Lacanians typically place the entire borromean knot within the symbolic ring alone, as if the other rings have no influence. Is it any wonder that many Lacanians focus on discourse analysis – or are found in literature departments? The borromean clinic, as Levi Bryant explains it, forces us to consider other possibilities.
Naively, we could suggest that the imaginary real occurs when the real is exposed in its image-form. Alternatively, could we not suggest that the real imaginary occurs when the imaginary is exposed within its the real form? Similarly, Zizek has claimed:
There are three modalities of the Real: the “real Real” (the horrifying Thing, the primordial object, from Irma’s throat to the Alien), the “imaginary Real” (the mysterious je ne sais quoi, the unfathomable “something” on account of which the sublime dimension shines through an ordinary object), and the “symbolic Real” (the real as consistency: the signifier reduced to a senseless formula, like the quantum physics formulas which can no longer be translated back into—or related to— the everyday experience of our life-world). The Real is thus effectively all three dimensions at the same time: the abyssal vortex which ruins every consistent structure; the mathematized consistent structure of reality; the fragile pure appearance. And, in a strictly homologous way, there are three modalities of the Symbolic (the real—the signifier reduced to a senseless formula; the imaginary—the Jungian “symbols”; and the symbolic—speech, meaningful language) and three modalities of the Imaginary (the real— fantasy, which is precisely an imaginary scenario occupying the place of the Real; the imaginary—image as such in its fundamental function of a decoy; and the symbolic— again, the Jungian “symbols” or New Age archetypes).
This is the genius of the Borromean position. And this is the genius of The Act of Killing. Like the new philosophical realisms, documentary realism reminds us to also think from the real toward the imaginary and not just from the imaginary toward the real.