"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.
Because the gangsters remain noncommittal about their atrocities—one admits that he keeps inner peace by refusing to think about the ethics of the murders—the audience must step in and process for them. Oppenheimer shows many scenes of the gangsters watching previously-shot footage, so that they too become part of the film's audience, and this seems to help Anwar at least come to grips with some of what he has done. Even he does not connect all the dots, however, and it remains with the audience to do the imaginative work of empathy.
Another thread of the film looks at the modern incarnation of vigilantism in Indonesia, and the legacy left behind by the gangsters' actions. Oppenheimer never explicitly ties the modern sections to the recreations; he leaves it to the audience to conclude that some wounds take a long time to heal.
The most remarkable thing about The Act of Killing is how it takes the particular tragedy of the Indonesian massacres and widens it, so the audience sees the gangsters not merely as bad men separated by time and distance, but as representatives of the impulses of mankind more generally. Oppenheimer dares to make his subjects human, not monsters. They love and imitate movies, care for their families, long for freedom; this makes the evils of their crimes cut closer to the bone. The excuses they repeat sound all too familiar: duty, power, freedom. Evil does not lurk far away—it crouches at the doorstep of every human heart.
Stories We Tell: The Slipperiness of Memory
Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell takes Augustine's impulses in a much more intimate, though equally wrenching, direction. She sets out to document her parents' tumultuous marriage and her experiences growing up. As she explores her family's past and the secrets that lie buried there, she seeks to examine her story from every possible angle. She does not confine herself to her own perspective, but brings in family and friends, some only tangential to her main thread, to get at the heart of what her mother and father were like as a married couple.
One big revelation halfway through the film, introduced quite casually, drastically alters the meaning of the film. Thus Polley deftly pulls the rug out from under the viewer, revealing that the stories we tell and retell might not quite be what they seem.
Polley chafes against the idea that we ought to privilege one subjective memory of the past at the expense of others. One of the film's subjects suggests that while the story should be told, it should only come "objectively"— based on events as he experienced them.
Though the subject is a key figure, Polley rightly refuses to give his voice priority over anybody else's. He might have best access to the facts of some events, but he cannot speak for how everyone else involved processed those events.
In Confessions, Augustine spills a lot of ink wondering over the imperfections of memory, how events from the past rise and fall in significance and become blurred in detail in our minds. Polley juxtaposes various people's accounts of the same events to show how individual perspective leads to a multitude of interpretations of the past.
She also explores these ideas through stylistic and aesthetic choices. For example, her father not only appears as an interview subject, she also has him "narrate" events from her perspective, then comment on them from his.
The boldest choice she makes blurs lines even further: the film presents many home movies from the Polley family's past, only to gradually reveal that many of these are recreations being shot with actors. Polley pranks the audience, showing how ready we are to believe what we are shown without examination. Like Augustine, she knows that sifting the events of the past for significance takes hard work, because the past is not frozen in amber—it ebbs and flows in the mind. Through her own particular story, Polley challenges the audience to examine their own lives and memories—to find the truth amongst the lies.
56 Up: A Moment of Reflection
One of the other great documentaries this year comes from a long line of nonfiction royalty: 56 Up marks the eighth film in the Up series of documentaries. In 1963 a British TV station rounded up a group of seven-year-old children from all over England, gathering a wide sample of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, and asked them a series of questions about their lives. They intended to come back every seven years and check in on them.
Though the series started as a sort of sociological experiment, testing to see whether class systems in England still influenced life outcomes, it has grown in wondrous ways over the years. Director Michael Apted (an assistant on the first film but in charge since) has allowed the films to develop outside the original limitations, with the result that what started as an argumentative documentary series has evolved into something much more meditative and searching. Instead of focusing narrowly on class differences, the films explore universal themes and draw connections between people in unexpected ways. And 56 Up may be the best so far.
This latest entry finds the participants musing on the wide scope of their lives more than usual. Death has become a reality for most of them, with parents and friends either having passed or hovering near the brink. Many of the subjects try to make sense of the overarching shape their lives have taken.
This is classic Augustine: not merely remembering events but finding the meaning in them (think again of the pear-stealing, which opens a whole world for Augustine to explore). What makes this quest complicated for the subjects of 56 Up, however, is the role the film series itself has played in their lives. Several of the subjects openly resent the films for the way they misrepresent their lives. Neil, who has spent much of his life battling depression and unemployment, feels annoyed that audience members presume they can understand his life based on the small slices they witness on screen every seven years.
But they find themselves returning again and again when Apted comes around. Something draws them back, though they do not know what it is. I suspect that the films give the participants a means most of us lack to mark their lives, fixed points from which to survey the shape of their journey.
Most people have no outside force pushing them towards self-reflection. Simultaneously, the films inhibit true reflection: like Heisenberg's theorem, the very act of filming these people changes them, makes their introspection more difficult to achieve. Do they really mean what they say on screen, or are they performing for others, consciously or unconsciously? How possible is it to be truthful under a spotlight? The audience is itself complicit in these struggles, giving meaning to the participants and taking away seeds of contemplation for their own lives.
Room 237: No Tidy Narratives
My favorite documentary of the past year also highlights some of the difficulties inherent in true Augustinian reflectiveness. Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher, presents several different people speaking about their theories of the hidden meanings contained in Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining.
These hidden agendas range from the personal (Kubrick was confessing that he helped fake moon landing footage) to the overarching (the film is a metaphor for Native American genocide, or even the Holocaust) to the more abstract (he implanted subconscious message based on the principles of advertising). These theories come backed up with all sorts of details drawn from repeated close viewings of the film.
Taken one by one, indeed, they each prove fairly convincing on their own. Taken together, though, it becomes clear that these close, obsessive readings have wandered away from clarity towards the dangerous patterns of fanaticism.
Some have misinterpreted Ascher's intent here as a straightforward presentation: check out these interesting and/or bizarre readings of The Shining! Yet the juxtaposition, along with key aesthetic choices, make it clear that Ascher has other things on his mind.
The director subverts the normal "talking heads" model of straightforward documentaries by never showing the "experts" who are opining about the film. Instead, the only images on screen come directly from the movie, or an assortment of other films (mostly by Kubrick) which illustrate the words being spoken. This is a dizzying, brilliant technique which forces the viewer to enter directly into dialogue with both the text itself and the commentaries.
On-screen talking heads denote authority. So removing that authority creates a thick layer of doubt in the audience's mind; instead of taking things for granted, they must evaluate claims against the images presented on screen. Furthermore, Ascher sets the differing interpretations against each other in a way that makes us think about how we interpret texts. Taken individually, the interpretations seem, if improbable, at least supported by evidence. But as the same pieces of evidence get interpreted and reinterpreted in various ways, the arguments of each interpreter fall apart (a great example is the titular hotel room: each person offers a different interpretation of the numbers on the door, all declared with absolute certainty).
Ascher subtly offers up a broader point about the nature of interpretation—thinker beware, lest you too fall into the trap of finding tidy, overarching narratives where none exist.
There is a difference, of course, between examining the "text" of a film and the "text" of a life. Attentively consuming documentaries like those above, with imagination and empathy, does not guarantee that someone will take the same approach to their own life.
But by exposing ourselves to art that prods us, that forces us to approach with openness and engagement, we start to be formed into people who might consider approaching our own lives more thoughtfully. Augustine could not have written his Confessions as a brash young man. He had to cultivate, through practice, the reflectiveness that peers below the surface. And documentaries like these give more opportunities for reflection, more open spaces in which we can wrestle with the meanings of the text, and our own lives as well.
Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a writer and critic living in Oklahoma. You can follow him @ashergelzer.