"Who can unravel such a twisted and tangled knottiness?" - St. Augustine, The Confessions
Documentaries can feel like exercises in, at best, information dumping—and sometimes, manipulation. Films like this year's Blackfish, which examines the treatment of killer whales at Sea World, seek to elicit outrage in order to promote social change, or at least present a straightforward recitation of facts.
Plenty of good documentaries are made in this style: it dominates the genre. But 2013 yielded a number of documentaries which push the boundaries of the form. Films like The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, 56 Up, and Room 237 are experimental documentaries whose particular take on how "true" stories are told owe a huge debt, conscious or otherwise, to St. Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century bishop who wrote the book that is widely considered the world's first memoir. None of these documentaries are religious, but some of their key characteristics can be traced back to Augustine.
In his Confessions, Augustine probes his memories, relentlessly tearing them apart in search of meaning and shape. Rather than simply recounting facts or telling stories, Augustine mines his experience, turning over memories, interpreting and reinterpreting.
Similarly, these documentaries refuse to remain at the surface level of events. Like Augustine, who finds in his experience stealing pears as a teenager multiple explanations of what drives humans to sin, these filmmakers dig deep into the past and expose the subjective nature of memory.
These directors demand that the viewer move past mere fact processing or emotional response; they ask the viewer to help complete the film in his or her mind. Similarly, Augustine addresses the Confessions to God, but he also seeks to draw his readers into his story, to have them put themselves in his place through leaps of empathy and imagination.
And these films use small, particular narratives as lenses through which to view universal themes. In the same way, Augustine's story is not merely his own: it is the illumination of the spiritual journey we all embark upon.
The Act of Killing: Audience, Engage
Among this year's documentaries, The Act of Killing has led the charge, garnering near-universal acclaim. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer does an extraordinary thing: he examines Indonesia's bloody past by having former "movie theater gangsters"—thugs hired by the government to exterminate Communists, intellectuals, people of Chinese origin, and other threats to power—recreate the crimes they committed long ago. The main subject, Anwar Congo, simulates in graphic detail the ways in which he would murder people. In the process, he and the audience must confront the terrible depths of human nature, and the dark desires which motivate humanity's thirst for blood.
It would have been easy for Oppenheimer to make a documentary that would give a bird's eye view of the Indonesian massacres. Such an endeavor would even have value, given how little exposure many in the West have to these tragedies.
But that documentary, no matter how thorough, would not be as intense and raw as The Act of Killing. Its power comes in part through Oppenheimer's use of Augustinian methods. He recreates the past, staging reenactments that force the gangsters to come face to face with their memories and confront the ways in which they have hidden the past from themselves.