Sunshine Recorder

Link: Master of the Macabre

A self-taught special effects guru, A.S. Hamilton has crafted everything from severed heads to exploded organs with chilling perfection. But his greatest big-screen challenge was bringing one of human history’s most gruesome chapters back to life.

The bodies were everywhere: piled in charred heaps on the side of the road, clustered in shallow water under bridges and sprawled across lush fields and dusty city streets. Above the carnage, flocks of crows flew in dizzying patterns, their raucous cawing and insistent beating wings searing the stillness of the African sky. Occasionally, some of the birds would swoop down towards the bodies, near the faces of the dead, who wore expressions that told a tale of something vast and incomprehensible, something that many would later refer to only as “pure evil.” As the camera panned out and more images of shattered bodies appeared on the screen in Roger Spottiswoode’s film Shake Hands with the Devil, most of the audience was probably not thinking that these bodies were rubber cadavers. That fact matters only to a handful of people. A.S. Hamilton, the artisan behind crafting many of the bodies and body parts, is chief among them.

At forty-four, Hamilton is a slender six foot four inches with cobalt blue eyes, a copper blonde goatee and a rugged voice that rises and falls as quickly as his thoughts. Conversations with him are a bit like falling down the rabbit hole: Ideas move quickly and an element of the fantastic lurks on the periphery—his stories about middle school teachers seamlessly morph into tales of searching for a glass eye or a bloody finger. But despite the wild verbal meanderings and almost otherworldly sensation drummed up by his anecdotes of growing up on Nova Scotia’s foggy shores, when it comes to his job—anatomical trauma simulation—Hamilton is all business.

In an industry saturated with special effects artists who are focused on science fiction and fantasy, Hamilton is one of the few who specializes in trauma simulation, the art of authentically reproducing reality. “All films have special effects artists, but not all have trauma simulators,” he says. “My job begins when the transformation in the actor or element is too radical for the on-set make-up team to undertake because they don’t have the necessary gear or skills.” Blending a background in forensics, mold making and polymer chemistry with a love of storytelling, Hamilton’s work stands out for its individual realism. “No two bodies are alike, even if there are a hundred bodies that died in the same way,” he says.

Hamilton’s approach comes from his philosophy about the role of art, particularly the creation and representation of violence in film. “A big problem with a lot of movies is that there is superfluous violence, and that violence becomes the story. People start going just to watch people get hurt or killed. It’s like a form of pornography—torture porn—and it’s done for shock value, nothing else,” he says. “Me, I don’t take violence lightly. I never have and never will, and I don’t want the audience to take it lightly either.”

In the case of Shake Hands, Hamilton’s handiwork represented the murdered victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an event that rattled his humanist sensibilities. He had followed the genocide, a mass murder of 800,000 people in just 100 days, from afar and was left confounded. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. We [the Canadians] had peacekeepers there and it was getting worse and worse. Why was no one doing anything?”

In 2006, Hamilton heard whispers in the Canadian film industry that Roger Spottiswoode was planning to turn Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, into a film, and he knew he wanted in. “There was no question about it. I had read the story of General Dallaire, and I knew that no one could render this work with the same creativity and respect for authenticity that I could,” he says with confidence.

Wasting no time, he contacted the executive producer and production designer and “rather aggressively petitioned the designer with a series of phone calls saying, ‘You’re going to need X numbers of stunt machetes in plastic, and you’ll need X number of bodies, which you can’t make on people laying in the sun for hours.” His persistence paid off, and soon he had the job. “Honestly, until I opened my big yap, I don’t think they had initially intended to find several hundred thousand dollars for rubber bodies,” he says. “It was more me creating the position.”

Hamilton had decades of experience simulating wounded and dead bodies for television and film, including for the award winning mini-series Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion about the 1917 cargo ship explosion that occurred off the coast of Halifax, killing thousands. For the series, he fashioned more than sixty bodies, replicating people with severed limbs, shrapnel injuries, exposed internal organs and a particularly harrowing image of a frozen twelve-year-old girl holding an infant.

Despite his accolades and experience, the scope, scale and mind-numbing historical reality demanded by Shake Hands was new to him. Making one realistic dead body is no small task, but making more than thirty-five that would represent one of the worst systematic atrocities since the Holocaust was a heavy responsibility. “Very early on, my team came to identify with the film not as crew members, but as people being entrusted to do an honest and accurate portrayal about a true epochal event in the lives of very real people,” he says.

Not everyone shared the same moral sentiment. Hamilton still recoils a bit when he remembers a phone conversation that ensued the first time he sent an image of a face slashed by a machete to the production executive, already on-site in Africa.

“Oh no, that’s way too heavy and gross and awful!” the production executive told him.

“But that’s real, even mild,” Hamilton said.

“Mild? What do you mean? It’s terrible!”

“It takes an average of eight to twenty-one strikes to kill someone with a machete,” Hamilton replied. “This image illustrates only five wounds. This would be a light version of the real thing.”

“No, I don’t think they’ll ever show anything like this.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t be making this movie if we can’t show even the most basic truth of a machete massacre,” Hamilton snapped.

With that, he ended the conversation. Refusing to compromise his vision and his values, he continued to create the bodies as he saw fit, with uncompromisingly realistic machete wounds. Some three months later, during a production meeting, the on-set UN representative, a quiet and reserved gentleman who witnessed the genocide, took out “a top-secret collection of photos wrapped in a brown paper bag that he passed to us like contraband,” recalls Hamilton. He gloats a bit as he remembers the production team pulling the images out of the bag, their faces wincing, turning paler and paler, until they fell silent. “They never said anything to me again.”

Leaning back in his chair and shaking his head, Hamilton admits, “This job is definitely not for the faint of heart.” But a strong stomach is only a fraction of what’s required. His line of work calls for immense patience, a keen eye for detail and a profound understanding of medical forensics, a field Hamilton was introduced to at thirteen. Back then, a hospital administrator who was cast in a school production of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, for which Hamilton was doing the makeup, noticed the young man would spend his rehearsal breaks creating wounds on people, and the administrator invited him to see the “real thing” at the hospital morgue. Hamilton’s first encounter with the dead was “a guy having a brain autopsy,” an experience that left him feeing “fascination and awe at the science of it.”

“I felt at home in the environment,” he says, shushing his cat.

Link: Stoicism & Star Trek

Star Trek is a kitsch guilty pleasure with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator was an atheist and humanist who aimed to show characters co-operating through reason and humanity. First broadcast in 1966, it explored ethics, philosophy and politics and challenged its audience with a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.

Star Trek’s Mr Spock is probably the Stoic icon of pop culture. His character has brought Stoic ideas to millions. The use of Stoicism was deliberate and the show’s creator is quoted as saying he “gave Stoicism to Spock.” Spock is the ship’s science officer, guided by his Vulcan philosophy which is based on logic and emotional control. He controls his emotions and withholds judgement. He uses meditation and finds human emotions “illogical.” Yet he (as well as Stoicism) is often misidentified as being without emotion, coldblooded and unfeeling. This post looks at Spock’s Stoic virtues as shown by both internal and external conflicts of reason and emotion and asks if Spock truly represents the good Stoic.

Spock’s Stoic Virtues

The following quotes show the similarity of Vulcan philosophy to Stoicism.

First, Spock accepts reality:

“What is necessary is never unwise.” – Spock’s Father

Or as a Stoic formulation, if it is necessary it is beyond our control. If we fight what is necessary we suffer conflict, if we accept what is necessary we gain tranquillity.   Conversely, we can formulate that what is unnecessary is clearly unwise. Marcus Aurelius observed that most of what we say and do is unnecessary. His advice being: “On each occasion we should ask, is this one of the necessary things?” If unnecessary, simply avoid it. Using logic to find the core necessity simplifies life greatly.

Second, Spock calmly observes without adding opinion.

“Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.” – Spock

I love this. One word achieves Epictetus’ emotional distance and definition as something you can or can’t control. To only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings rapid mental calm. Spock observes and states facts. There is no conflict with reality.

Third, Spock strives for emotional control. Like the Stoics, Spock is misrepresented as lacking emotion, but he neither avoids nor evades emotion, rather:

“Our emotions are controlled, kept in check. This adherence to principles of logic offers a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.” – Spock

He works to replace conflicted and destructive emotions with ‘proper’ ones e.g. contemplation not fear. His tranquillity is not upset by others or the unhelpful thinking of his ego. Such emotional control is hard work. Despite constant meditation practice, in one classic episode “The Crying Time” Spock is seen repeating: “I’m in control of my emotions… control of my emotions” before breaking down in tears.

Mr Spock, Dr McCoy and Captain Kirk

In addition to his internal conflicts of reason and emotion, the show’s creator used Spock with two other main characters to work this conflict out in each episode. He realised that TV did not allow the exposition of a character’s stream of consciousness in the way a novel did, and so he:

“Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy.)” – Gene Roddenberry

Dr McCoy represents the human irrational appetites. He is guided by emotion, compassion and his Hippocratic oath. His emotions create conflict, his outrage at injustice leads him to act rashly and put himself and others in danger.

Captain Kirk represents the human spirit, guided by his mission statement, human values and morality. His task is to balance the two extremes of reason and emotion.  In a great interview Stephen Fry talks about how he used Star Trek in his dissertation on Nietzsche and the dichotomy of human nature and rational philosophy:

“You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution. And not only that, the planets they visit usually make the mistake of being either over-ordered and over-reasonable and over-logical (so they kill those who dissent, and they do it calmly and reasonably), and they have to learn to be a bit human. Or, they are just a savage race that needs reason and order.” [1]

Science Officer Spock and Captain Kirk differ in their views of whether a Captain should be ruled by his head or heart:

“I neither enjoy the idea of command, nor am I in fear of it. It simply exists and I will do whatever logically needs to be done.” – Spock

“Intuition, however illogical is a command prerogative.” – Kirk

These two views are echoed in modern neuroscience by Daniel Kahneman. He sees each brain as operating two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on intuition and emotion – while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. [2]

A Stoic is exhorted to act “for the common welfare.” Both these thinking systems can achieve this; System 1 by automatic mental responses where emotion triggers an action to avoid danger or protect those in need and System 2 by logical analysis.

Star Trek depicts these systems in the personality of Science Officer Spock, and Doctor McCoy.

McCoy is System 1, guided by compassion and his Hippocratic Oath he will risk his life for what he feels is right. This is the base human level. But McCoy’s emotions often lead to irrational decisions. Spock is System 2, he works from data to hypothesis to test to conclusion.

Spock and Dr MCoy are seen arguing in nearly every episode as to whether reason or emotion should be their guide.  Spock ruthlessly applies pure logic to ethics:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”. – Spock

Spock is following the Stoic exhortation to apply the same logic to yourself as you do to others. He of course takes this depersonalisation to its “logical” conclusion and refuses to save his own father’s life in order to save more lives. He says:

“We have adopted a way of life that is logical and beneficial – we cannot disregard that for personal gain – no matter how important that gain”. – Spock

He believes it is illogical to kill without reason, but if it is logical to kill he will, even if it means sacrificing himself. In one episode Spock decides to sacrifice his life to protect the crew:

McCoy: “I’m sick and tired of your logic”

Spock “That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six.”

Spock’s unemotional way of making ethical decisions seems to be supported by a 2007 neuroscience study which found the first causal link between emotion and moral decisions. Three groups were tested, Group 1- with brain damage connected to emotion, Group 2 – with brain damage unconnected to emotion and Group 3 – with no brain damage. The subjects were given moral dilemmas about inflicting harm on one person, to prevent harm to many.  20% of Group 2 and 3 were willing, but Group 1 was twice as willing. Moral judgement involves a conflict of emotion and reason at physical and intellectual levels. This was simply not there due to a lack of empathy but arguably did lead to a greater good (saving more people). [4] This raises interesting questions of whether emotion can actually be a limiting factor in decision making if morality is looked on in a utilitarian sense.

The Stoic Ideal – Kirk or Spock?

In conclusion, the character of Spock made a great contribution in bringing Stoic ideas into popular culture. He has shown millions of viewers the concept of a person seeking to control their emotions to achieve tranquillity and good choices.  He is set up to clash with Dr McCoy who represents emotion without reason. McCoy’s emotions are raw and unexamined and he is forced to: “direct the body in one direction, the mind in another, to be torn between utterly conflicting emotions.” – Seneca.

Following these differing views of reason and emotion, I looked to Seneca’s description of the Stoic Captain:

“The pilot’s art is never made worse by the storm nor the application of his art either. The pilot has promised you, not a prosperous voyage, but a serviceable performance of his task — that is, an expert knowledge of steering a ship. And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent. The storm does not interfere with the pilot’s work, but only with his success. “What then,” you say, “is not a pilot harmed by any circumstance which does not permit him to make port, frustrates all his efforts, and either carries him out to sea, or holds the ship in irons, or strips her masts?” It is indeed so far from hindering the pilot’s art that it even exhibits the art; for anyone, in the words of the proverb, is a pilot on a calm sea……He is always in action, greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom”. – Seneca.

In this formulation, the ideal Captain needs four virtues: inner resilience, to avoid self-destruction, to know what is in his control and what is not and most critically, to know when and how toact.

Spock’s logic gets him to the third virtue, but his logic inhibits action. He often says:

“I have insufficient information” – Spock

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” – Spock

Logic says the least risk is best. Logic says deferring judgement will create better decisions. In fact studies have proven this is a cognitive distortion and there is no correlation between more information and greater accuracy. [4] Logic paralyses Spock into inertia.  When the ship is under attack and all options used, Spock sees no logical move:

“In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate”.-Spock

But to move from uncertainty and to show your skill you must risk. Kirk retorts he doesn’t play chess, he plays poker. In this he is closer to Epictetus’ instruction for life:

“Imitate those who play dice. Counters and dice are indifferent: how do I know what is going to turn up? My business is to use what does turn up with diligence and skill.”

A player needs to know the rules, how to play and how to gamble.  The first two rely on reason, the last on will. Kirk adds to logic with moral precepts which drive action.

Who then is the true Stoic?

I would argue the Stoic ideal is the best of Spock’s thinking with Captain Kirk’s bold heart. Star Trek shows this as follows:

First, that emotion without reason (Dr McCoy) and reason without emotion (Mr Spock) cannot lead to virtuous acts as to live according to reason has a moral as well as logical requirement.

Second, Kirk in representing the human spirit and moral principles shows you can reconcile the unexamined reactions of emotion (Dr McCoy) using counsel from reason (Mr Spock).

Third, Kirk is able to balance logic, principles and emotion to come to ‘proper’ emotions. These proper emotions are the basis to fire him into virtuous acts for the common welfare.

Lastly, Kirk has the will to do ‘the right thing’ when ‘the logical thing’ is inaction. His proper emotions drive virtuous acts, he is in accordance with nature as a moral and logical being.

“No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action”. – Seneca.

So when stuck in a stalemate of reason and emotion, picture Spock and McCoy head to head and follow Kirk’s lead:

“Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.” – Kirk

Link: The Truths Behind 'Dr. Strangelove'

Link: David Cronenberg on The Metamorphosis, The Fly, and the Aging Process

This essay appears as the introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis.

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in their bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did.

Is Gregor’s transformation a death sentence or, in some way, a fatal diagnosis? Why does the beetle Gregor not survive? Is it his human brain, depressed and sad and melancholy, that betrays the insect’s basic sturdiness? Is it the brain that defeats the bug’s urge to survive, even to eat? What’s wrong with that beetle? Beetles, the order of insect called Coleoptera, which means “sheathed wing” (though Gregor never seems to discover his own wings, which are presumably hiding under his hard wing casings), are notably hardy and well adapted for survival; there are more species of beetle than any other order on earth. Well, we learn that Gregor has bad lungs they are “none too reliable”—and so the Gregor beetle has bad lungs as well, or at least the insect equivalent, and perhaps that really is his fatal diagnosis; or perhaps it’s his growing inability to eat that kills him, as it did Kafka, who ultimately coughed up blood and died of starvation caused by laryngeal tuberculosis at the age of forty. What about me? Is my seventieth birthday a death sentence? Of course, yes, it is, and in some ways it has sealed me within myself as surely as if I had suffered a total paralysis. And this revelation is the function of the bed, and of dreaming in the bed, the mortar in which the minutiae of everyday life are crushed, ground up, and mixed with memory and desire and dread. Gregor awakes from troubled dreams which are never directly described by Kafka. Did Gregor dream that he was an insect, then awake to find that he was one? “‘What in the world has happened to me?’ he thought.” “It was no dream,” says Kafka, referring to Gregor’s new physical form, but it’s not clear that his troubled dreams were anticipatory insect dreams. In the movie I co-wrote and directed of George Langelaan’s short story The Fly, I have our hero Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, say, while deep in the throes of his transformation into a hideous fly/human hybrid, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” He is warning his former lover that he is now a danger to her, a creature with no compassion and no empathy. He has shed his humanity like the shell of a cicada nymph, and what has emerged is no longer human. He is also suggesting that to be a human, a self-aware consciousness, is a dream that cannot last, an illusion. Gregor too has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But unlike Brundle’s fly self, Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.

When The Fly was released in 1986, there was much conjecture that the disease that Brundle had brought on himself was a metaphor for AIDS. Certainly I understood this—AIDS was on everybody’s mind as the vast scope of the disease was gradually being revealed. But for me, Brundle’s disease was more fundamental: in an artificially accelerated manner, he was aging. He was a consciousness that was aware that it was a body that was mortal, and with acute awareness and humor participated in that inevitable transformation that all of us face, if only we live long enough. Unlike the passive and helpful but anonymous Gregor, Brundle was a star in the firmament of science, and it was a bold and reckless experiment in transmitting matter through space (his DNA mixes with that of an errant fly) that caused his predicament.

Langelaan’s story, first published in Playboy magazine in 1957, falls firmly within the genre of science fiction, with all the mechanics and reasonings of its scientist hero carefully, if fancifully, constructed (two used telephone booths are involved). Kafka’s story, of course, is not science fiction; it does not provoke discussion regarding technology and the hubris of scientific investigation, or the use of scientific research for military purposes. Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, The Metamorphosis forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend.

Stories of magical transformations have always been part of humanity’s narrative canon. They articulate that universal sense of empathy for all life forms that we feel; they express that desire for transcendence that every religion also expresses; they prompt us to wonder if transformation into another living creature would be a proof of the possibility of reincarnation and some sort of afterlife and is thus, however hideous or disastrous the narrative, a religious and hopeful concept. Certainly my Brundlefly goes through moments of manic strength and power, convinced that he has combined the best components of human and insect to become a super being, refusing to see his personal evolution as anything but a victory even as he begins to shed his human body parts, which he carefully stores in a medicine cabinet he calls the Brundle Museum of Natural History.

There is none of this in The Metamorphosis. The Samsabeetle is barely aware that he is a hybrid, though he takes small hybrid pleasures where he can find them, whether it’s hanging from the ceiling or scuttling through the mess and dirt of his room (beetle pleasure) or listening to the music that his sister plays on her violin (human pleasure). But the Samsa family is the Samsabeetle’s context and his cage, and his subservience to the needs of his family both before and after his transformation extends, ultimately, to his realization that it would be more convenient for them if he just disappeared, it would be an expression of his love for them, in fact, and so he does just that, by quietly dying. The Samsabeetle’s short life, fantastical though it is, is played out on the level of the resolutely mundane and the functional, and fails to provoke in the story’s characters any hint of philosophy, meditation, or profound reflection. How similar would the story be, then, if on that fateful morning, the Samsa family found in the room of their son not a young, vibrant traveling salesman who is supporting them by his unselfish and endless labor, but a shuffling, half-blind, barely ambulatory eighty-nine-year-old man using insectlike canes, a man who mumbles incoherently and has soiled his trousers and out of the shadowland of his dementia projects anger and induces guilt? If, when Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into a demented, disabled, demanding old man? His family is horrified but somehow recognize him as their own Gregor, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in the beetle variant of the story, they decide that he is no longer their Gregor, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear.

When I went on my publicity tour for The Fly, I was often asked what insect I would want to be if I underwent an entomological transformation. My answers varied, depending on my mood, though I had a fondness for the dragonfly, not only for its spectacular flying but also for the novelty of its ferocious underwater nymphal stage with its deadly extendable underslung jaw; I also thought that mating in the air might be pleasant. Would that be your soul, then, this dragonfly, flying heavenward? came one response. Is that not really what you’re looking for? No, not really, I said. I’d just be a simple dragonfly, and then, if I managed to avoid being eaten by a bird or a frog, I would mate, and as summer ended, I would die.

Link: How a Relationship Dies on Facebook

Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg both quit Facebook about a year ago. “I felt that I had developed an unhealthy addiction to lurking and creeping,” Cederberg, who is twenty-three, told me. Late at night, he would find himself staring at his computer screen, clicking mindlessly from one page to another. “I’d end up on some girl from Bangladesh’s Facebook account, and I’d be angry that I couldn’t see her profile.”

“I just don’t see what the plusses are,” Woodman, twenty-two, said. He senses the incredulity among his peers—“You’re just trying to be supercool when you say you don’t have a Facebook”—but, he tried to explain, “I’m not a very public person.”

Their attitudes toward social media have shifted dramatically in the few years since they were teen-agers, and they put their newly honed critique on display in a seventeen-minute short film, “Noah,” which premièred at the Toronto Film Festival early this week. The entire story plays out on the computer screen of the protagonist, a high-school senior named Noah, who frenetically switches from a porn site to Facebook to Skype to iTunes to Chatroulette. Watching the monitor as Noah sees it replicates the voyeuristic sensation of Facebook stalking—it’s both entrancing and poisonous. Woodman and Cederberg wanted to present a more realistic depiction of technology than what they typically see in movies, with “characters slapping the keyboard really fast or Googling weird,” Cederberg said, because “we grew up on the computer.”

The duo met in their second year of studying film at Ryerson University, in Toronto. “Noah” was their thesis project, and their first foray into directing. “It cost us three hundred dollars to make—beer and pizza,” Cederberg said. Around the time they began plotting the story, they spent hours together surfing Chatroulette, an online hub for chance encounters created by a teen-age high-school dropout from Russia. (The site became infamous for frequent appearances of male genitalia.) But anonymity gives Chatroulette a peculiar appeal. “Chatroulette is the perfect antidote to Facebook,” Woodman said. “Facebook exposes everything and nothing about you at the same time, whereas with Chatroulette you can hide behind the nonentity of it. It’s that kind of danger that’s necessary for honest conversation.”

In the movie, Noah stalks his girlfriend, Amy, on Facebook, and, growing suspicious of her faithfulness, logs into her account to confirm his worst fears. After she spurns him for the transgression—by blocking him from viewing her profile page—he takes refuge in the disarming sincerity of a random stranger on Chatroulette. Noah’s emotions seem to be entirely bound up in social media; these online interactions are the source of both his angst and his relief. “I can get pretty neurotic. I tend to overanalyze things,” he says. Woodman told me that the most common reaction he and Cederberg receive to the film is “Oh my god. This was me five years ago.”

“People are so isolated when they’re at a computer,” he added. “There are all these things that are becoming the norm, like scrolling through someone’s pictures, or creeping. But no one has taken off the veil, to be like, ‘What does this mean? Why are we doing that?’ ”

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that teens are wary of excessive sharing, “stressful drama,” and the increasing adult presence on Facebook. But they continue using the network because it’s crucial to their social lives. Nineteen per cent of teens have posted updates, photos, or other content that they later regret sharing, and seventy-four per cent have deleted people from their network. More than sixty per cent post their relationship status.

The most commonly cited study of Facebook relationship malaise—of which there are many, as Maria Konnikova details—is called “More Information than You Ever Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?” Published in 2009, the paper describes “a feedback loop whereby heightened jealously leads to increased surveillance of a partner’s Facebook page,” and notes that “persistent surveillance results in further exposure to jealousy-provoking information”—a potentially flirtatious comment, or a curious “like” from an encroaching suitor.

Add to that new findings by Russell Clayton, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, who surveyed two hundred and five Facebook users about relationship conflicts related to Facebook. “Our study found that excessive Facebook users are more likely to connect or reconnect with other Facebook users, including previous partners, which may lead to emotional and physical cheating,” Clayton said, according to ScienceDaily. He went on, “Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured.”

So it is for Noah and Amy. After chatting with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend on Skype, Noah turns to his friend—username: kanye east—who advises, “Check her inbox that’s the home of infidelity.” As Facebook invites users to look at anything and everything, it sweeps away any sense of transgression. “For our generation, it’s become ingrained that you should have access,” Cederberg said.

Recently, for the sake of promoting their film, Cederberg and Woodman have returned to Facebook—as Noah and Amy. “We started making fake Facebook accounts, and Facebook actually deleted them,” Woodman said. “I guess they have something in their system that you can’t just create a fake Facebook.” So they repurposed their old profiles to create their characters’ accounts. Still, Cederberg said, “I stopped using it as a weird ego-marketing tool for myself.” Meanwhile, they started a fake Twitter account for their protagonist.

Not long ago, they visited Ryerson’s campus. It’s only been a year since they graduated, yet Woodman is already beginning to feel like he has aged out of the teen social-media universe.

Gadajace Glowy (Talking Heads) by Krzysztof Kieslowski

It is 1979. Krzysztof Kieslowski runs a sort of sociological poll. Seventy-nine Poles, aged seven to 100, answer three questions: When were you born? What are you? What would you like most? They want similar values: freedom, justice, democracy. We watch people thinking honestly, “latching on to something Good”, as one of the persons in the film says. From those registered on tape, Kieslowski chooses 44 people and puts them in chronological order: from a one-year-old who can’t speak yet, to a 100-year-old woman who can’t hear the question, but repeats several times that she’d like to live longer. He shows a whole gallery of talking heads – kids, pupils from primary and secondary schools, students, a full-time activist with a youth organization, an engineer on the threshold of his professional career, an electrician, a nurse, a priest, a history teacher, a mother of two, a writer, a sociologist, a sculptor, a taxi driver, retired people, a woman who thinks that above all she is Catholic, and a chemical engineer who acknowledges questions with: “these days I drink, everything’s fine.” On the level of image nothing in particular is happening. Simple heads come one after another, under which there is information about the date of birth. Yet this gallery fascinates, for two reasons: the viewer observes how people’s dreams change with age. At the beginning a funny two-year-old boy wants to be car – a Syrenka, and at the end, an almost one-hundred-year-old woman, having recently lost her husband, doesn’t want anything more. But this is only seemingly a mere enumeration of personal wishes. People’s dreams compose an image of their reality, as they indirectly speak of what it lacks, of what irritates them, of what they don’t agree with. They say: I would like the lack of respect to disappear; I’d like people to do something for others, not just for themselves; I wish for a freedom that doesn’t favor the strongest; I wish that we could live courageously; that all good people would latch onto the Good; that people would not fear others; that everyone could freely decide upon his fate; that there were less elbows and backs, and more heart and mind; I want a real and not just a verbal introduction of two notions: democracy and tolerance; better justice; I want to live under conditions of democracy and with a feeling of safety; to live in a real world that isn’t all fiction and pretense… Krzysztof Kieslowski, with extremely modest filmic means, has created a sort of collective portrait of the Pole – conscious of his identity and the place he lives in, careful observer of a reality that is hard to accept, ardently yearning for change, and ripe for revolt. The director finished his film in 1979 but the chance to reach an audience only came with the events of August 1980. For this documentary he was awarded an Honorable Mention at the International Film Festival in Oberhausen in 1981.

(Source: theunderestimator, via nothing-but-asphalt-and-dirt)

Link: Claude Lanzmann on Shoah and Schindler's List

Claude Lanzmann worked for more than nine years, from 1974 to 1985, on his film, which takes almost ten hours, Shoah. In it, Lanzmann shows no ‘images’ of the holocaust, but eyewitnesses, victims or executioners, testifying. Steven Spielberg chose in his film Schindler’s List, awarded this week with ten Oscars, the contrary approach.

I have much respect for Steven Spielberg. I have seen Indiana Jones, Raiders of the lost arc, E.T., Jaws; I love his films. He is a virtuoso, he knows his trade. When I heard about this project, of which I do not know the history of production, I said to myself: Spielberg will see himself confronted with a dilemma. He cannot tell the story about Schindler without also telling what the holocaust has been. But how can he tell what the holocaust was, if he is telling the story of a German who saved 1300 jews, while the overwhelming majority of the jews was not saved? Even when he shows the moment of the deportation to the Cracau ghetto, or the camp officer shooting at the deported, how can he do justice, even then, to the normalcy of the procedure of murder, the machinery of the extermination? It did not go like that for everyone. In Treblinka, or in Auschwitz, the possibility of salvation was inconceivable.

And does Schindler’s List convey, indeed, a deformation of the total view, of the historical truth? Yes, in the measure in which in the film everybody communicates with everybody. The jews communicate all the time with the Germans. In Shoah nobody meets anybody and to me that was an ethical stand. The problem is that Schindler’s List is swarming of ambiguous, and, in the extreme case, dangerous scenes, where one should, instead, have worked with a pair of tweezers. When Spielberg shows us jewish police officers bouncing on doors, during razzias, he conveys, without nuance, without further instructions, the idea that the jews have partaken in their own annihilation. When Spielberg shows Schindler demanding money from jews, the scene takes place in a car, with two bearded jews from the ‘Judenrat’ who whisper some and then take the money out of their pockets and hand it to Schindler. In this we find the stereotype that connects jews with money, bearded jews with money.

The whole film is attached to the personal story of Schindler: Schindler and women, Schindler and sex, Schindler and money, Schindler who is a gambler of sorts. That appeals; it is a bit like Raiders of the lost Arc. Yet, when you see Schindler at work, having diner with German officers or SS-people to implicate them in the story, these figures certainly appear corrupt, but at the same time, they are not wholly unsympathetic in their beautiful uniforms. This is, exactly, the problem of the image, of the picture. Nothing of what has happened resembled this by far, even where everything has an authentic ring to it. In fact, I fail to see how actors could convey deported people who had suffered months, years of agony, misery, humiliation and who died for fear.

In a way, I am incapable to substantiate of my claims. Either one understands them or one does not. It is a bit like the Cartesian ego: at the end one gets stuck, that is the ultimate knot, you cannot go further. The holocaust is unique in that, with a circle of fire, it builds a border around itself, which one cannot transgress, because a certain absolute kind of horror cannot be conveyed. To pretend that one is nevertheless conveying it makes one guilty of an offence of the utmost rudeness. Fiction is a transgression, I am deeply convinced that there is a ban on depiction. Schindler’s List evoked the same sort of sensation I got from the Holocaust series. Transgressing or trivializing, in this case they are identical. The series or the Hollywood film, they transgress because they trivialize, and thus they remove the holocaust’s unique character.

Shoah is not a documentary, not for a second, because that is not my way of doing things, of thinking. The question can be posed like this: if one wants to testify, does one then invent a new form or does one reconstruct? I think I have created a new form, Spielberg has chosen to reconstruct. If I had found an existing film-a secret film because filming was highly forbidden-shot by an SS-man, that shows how 3000 jews, men, women, children die together, choking, in a gas chamber or crematorium, then not only would I not have shown it, I would have destroyed it. I cannot say why. It speaks for itself.

I went to see Schindler’s List with the best will of the world, without the least bit of hostility. I told myself that there are things of filmic value, even though I was confronted over and over by the problem of the depicting and the acting. But then I see how Spielberg shows people in the Plaszow camp while they open mass graves to burn the corpses that are piled up in them after the destruction of the Krakau ghetto. It is a short scene, Spielberg is skilful enough to film quickly. In the beginning ofShoah, two survivors from the Vilna ghetto and the famous Ponary woods relate how in 1944 they were forced to open graves and to dig up with their bare hands cadavers which more and more resembled flat discs. The deeper they dug the flatter the corpses became, and the Germans forbade them to pronounce the word ‘death’ or the word ‘victim’. They had to call them ‘Figuren’, which means puppets, marionettes. In Shoah this is a shocking scene: two men speaking to each other in a wood in Israel. Suddenly I realize that Spielberg shows everything that I left out in Shoah.

Humble and proud I sincerely thought that there was a time before Shoah, and a time after Shoah, and that after Shoah certain things could no longer be done. Spielberg did them anyway. I received a letter from a journalist of the Evening Standard, who asked what I thought of Schindler’s List. He sad: “You can see how much you influenced Spielberg.” I answered that I could not see where my influence was. It is the exact reverse: my influence has been negative. I have the feeling he has made an illustratedShoah, he has given images where these are absent in Shoah, and images kill the imagination, because through Schindler, the hero that is disputable, at the least, they allow a consoling identification.

One can pose yet another question, about the ‘fashion’ of the just. This is clearly a fashion, launched by the Americans and the Israelis. One has stepped over to the other side. From now on there are more and more people who saved jews. If there were so may just people to save jews, how then can so many jews have died? Here too one loses all sense of proportion. There were ‘just’ people, but I won’t call them just, I call them people who did their duty. Some did it all the time, some did it time and again, others came halfway doing it. It is not a simple story.

The thing I reproach Spielberg is, that he shows the holocaust through the eyes of a German. Even though it was a German who saved jews, yet this completely changes the perspective on History. It is the world in reverse. Shoah disallows many things for people, Shoah is a lean and pure film. In Shoahthere is not a single personal story. The jewish survivors in Shoah are not merely survivors, but people who were at the end of a chain of extermination, and who witnessed directly how their people were murdered. Shoah is a film about the dead and not at all about survival.

None of the survivors in Shoah says “I”. Nobody tells a personal tale: the barber does not tell how after three months in the camp he escaped from Treblinka, that didn’t interest me and it didn’t interest him. He says “we”, he speaks for the dead, he is their spokesman. As far as I am concerned: I wanted to construct a form that acknowledged the generality of the people. It is the reverse from Spielberg for whom the extermination is a setting: the blinding black sun of the holocaust is not stood up to. One cries when seeing Schindler’s List? So be it. But tears are a kind of joy, a katharsis. Many people told me: I cannot see your picture, because with Shoah it is impossible to cry.

In a way, Spielberg’s film is a melodrama, a kitschy melodrama. One is affected by this story of a German swindler, nothing more than that. Anyway, although many take me for a Zionist I would never dare to give such sledgehammer blows as those Spielberg gives at the end of Schindler’s List. With that great reconciliation, Schindler’s grave in Israel, with its cross and the small jewish pebbles, with the colour which insinuates a happy ending … Israel cannot buy off the holocaust. The six million did not die to justify Israel’s existence. The last image of Shoah is different. It is a train which rides and never stops. It says that the holocaust has no ending.

"The 400 Blows" by François Truffaut

The opening credits sequence of The 400 Blows (1959) takes us for a drive along the empty streets of Paris on a gray morning in early winter. Bare trees, a glimpse of the weak sun as we make our way toward the Eiffel Tower: a lonely feeling settles over us and never really leaves. This world, the world of François Truffaut’s childhood, is not the chic 1950s Paris of sidewalk cafés, couples strolling along the Seine, and Edith Piaf regretting nothing.

Eleven-year-old Antoine Doinel is in school when the film begins. We see him singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. He may not be a model student, but he’s no worse than any of the other boys. Nevertheless, an example must be set pour encourager les autres. Draconian punishment of a potential ringleader is a time-honored means of enforcing discipline among the troops. Antoine is sent to the corner, kept in during recess, assigned extra homework. Even so, the teacher’s authority is subverted. Small insurrections break out in the classroom when his back is turned. Exasperated, he threatens reprisals. “Speak up, or your neighbor will get it.”

We begin to suspect that we are not in 1950s Paris. We are in Paris during the German occupation—the era when Truffaut was actually growing up. The somber mood, the furtive acts of rebellion and retaliation, as when some of the students, led by Antoine, destroy a pair of goggles belonging to the class snitch.

There are other clues. A scene that evokes the hunger, when wartime rationing was in effect. Antoine spends a night on the streets, afraid to go home after he’s been caught in a lie. As dawn approaches, he steals a bottle of milk from a caddy he spots on the curb in front of a shop and drinks it ravenously. Later, Truffaut draws our attention to a notice about exterminating rats on the wall of the police station where Antoine is locked up after his stepfather turns him in for a petty theft. Equating Jews with vermin was de rigueur in Vichy propaganda, a standard feature of the newsreels shown before the movies that the future filmmaker sneaked into when he was supposed to be in school.

Truffaut’s stepfather really did hand him over to the police. He was subsequently sent to a reform school on the outskirts of the city, the Paris Observation Center for Minors, a grim institution where corporal punishment was employed to keep the delinquents in line. Antoine is sent to an Observation Center in Normandy, near the coast. The routine is strict, militaristic. We see the young offenders marching two-by-two under the watchful gaze of the warden. No deviation passes unnoticed. Antoine is slapped for taking a bite of bread before he is given permission to eat, the blow delivered casually and without rancor. A simple transaction: one violation of the rules earns a slap.

More serious infractions, such as running away, earn a beating. A boy is returned to the institution, his face bruised and bloody, dragged past the other juveniles by his captors and locked in a cell. Truffaut suffered the same fate for attempting to escape and ended up spending several months in solitary confinement. He also underwent a series of psychological assessments. In the film, Antoine is warned by another boy not to let his guard down in his interview with the “spychologist.” Anything he does or says in her presence will be noted in his dossier, his source cautions, together with “what everyone thinks of you, including your neighbors.”

The Kids in the Cage

This scene, though not strictly autobiographical (in reality, the Center’s psychologist became Truffaut’s staunchest ally), is in keeping with the wartime undercurrents running throughout the picture. Harder to decipher is an incongruous detail the filmmaker inserted into an outdoor sequence at the reform school, where we see the warden locking his own small children in a cage, presumably for their own protection, as the young offenders pass close by for their daily exercise. Granted, the cage is a rather pretty structure, filigreed metal painted white, but the image echoes a key moment in the police station, when Antoine was taken out of the basement cell he shared with a male inmate to make way for some newly-arrested prostitutes. 

The idea of an eleven-year-old boy being locked up with these immoral women was so unthinkable that he was removed to a cage the size of a phone booth for his protection. Film scholar Adam Lowenstein draws a connection between the image of the kids in the cage and the work of French director Georges Franju, whose horror films exerted a powerful influence on Truffaut. Franju liked to slip uncanny images into his work, “forcing a recognition with the disturbing historical events that haunt it.” The past, in Franju’s cinematic vision, was not safely past; events such as the German occupation and postwar purges, the round-ups of French Jews and their deportation to the death camps, continued to inform the present in myriad ways, not all of them conscious. Indeed, Truffaut said in an interview that he intended the kids in the cage as a tribute to Franju.

The persistence of past trauma in present-day awareness was also a central preoccupation in the films of Truffaut’s colleague and mentor Alain Resnais. His documentary, Night and Fog (1955), was released during the Algerian war (1954-62), when French soldiers were accused of “doing over there what the Germans had done over here,” as Albert Camus bluntly put it. The narrator’s final words, scripted by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol, stand as commentary on France’s dirty war in the colony.

We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us, and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.

The bleakest moments of The 400 Blows seem freighted with political significance. Let us return to that notice on the wall of the police station about rat exterminations. The term used in the notice, deratissages, closely resembles the euphemism the French army employed when referring to their anti-terrorist raids on Algerian villages: rat hunts or ratissages. These operations entailed razing the village to the ground, rounding up suspected terrorists, and forcibly resettling the remaining inhabitants in barbed wire-enclosed camps. Some two million Algerians were expelled from their homes and interned under harsh conditions by French authorities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths from starvation, disease, or exposure.

Evidence of such inhumane policies, on top of the Gestapo tactics decried by Camus—torture, hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians, summary executions—was impossible to ignore in the late 1950s, when Truffaut was making his film. No less troubling were the French government’s efforts to suppress debate on the Algerian campaign at home. When the journalist and former Resistance leader Claude Bourdet published an editorial in 1957 critical of the war, he was arrested at his home in Paris, handcuffed and brought to the Fresnes Prison, strip-searched, and questioned for the better part of a day. Fresnes Prison was where the Gestapo had interrogated members of the Resistance; Bourdet himself had been tortured there in 1944 before being sent to a concentration camp, and he did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the two experiences. “When the doorbell rings at 6 a.m. and it’s the milkman, you know you are in a democracy.”

Link: Why Michel Gondry's Noam Chomsky Documentary 'Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?' Is His Best Movie Since 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'

Link: Approaching Shoah

“We had no precedents in thought or experience … We had no metaphors that could release the work of imagination. All efforts to understand what had happened in Europe required as their premise a wrenching away from received categories of thought—but that cannot happen overnight, it isn’t easy to check in your modest quantity of mental stock.” In the years after the Second World War, the great American socialist critic Irving Howe and his contemporaries had to piece things together one report and newsreel at a time as they collectively strove to grasp the magnitude of an event that acquired an official English name only in the late fifties. “To be human,” continued Howe in his 1982 autobiography A Margin of Hope, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” Howe’s words signaled vigilance rather than defeat, however, with nothing of the “contemplative withdrawal” he identi­fied in the writings of his onetime friend and fellow New York intellectual Lionel Trilling. Over the years, Howe would endeavor to equip himself and continue to grapple with the Holocaust right to the end of his life.

The spring 1981 issue of Dissent, the journal Howe cofounded in 1954 (he served as editor and was a frequent contributor until his death in 1993), featured a piece by the French film­maker and journalist Claude Lanzmann, who at that point was many years into the making of a nonfiction film that would come to redefine our sense of the Holocaust and, indeed, to rename it. By then, there was a whole new reality to confront, its component parts having hardened over the decades to the point of near petrification. Lanzmann’s essay, “From the Holocaust to Holocaust,” originally written in French and published in the June 1979 issue of Les temps modernes, took a close look at the moral disposition of the world three decades after the destruction of Europe’s Jews. His nominal target was the American TV miniseries Holocaust and its revelatory effect when broadcast in Germany in 1978, but he was really taking aim at the “aberration” or “bad apple” theory of the final solution—the notion that it was the work of a few madmen—from which many poisonous flowers of impatience, exhaustion, rationalization, evasion, simplification, falsification, and fully resurgent anti-Semitism have bloomed. From the first utterance of the term Judenfrage (the “Jewish question”), the world had attempted, and would continue to attempt, to unburden itself of the weight of a catastrophe for which it should have shared responsibility to begin with, by transferring that weight to, in Howe’s words, a “more exalted and less accusatory” realm “beyond history.” The dire warning of historian Ignacy Schiper before he died in the Majdanek concentration camp in 1943 came to pass even as the war was still being fought: “Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the civilized world.”

“The first question,” wrote Lanzmann, “is not ‘How was the Holocaust pos­si­ble?’ but ‘How is it possible, thirty years after the Holocaust, that we should be where we are?’” By 1985, the year his epic film, Shoah, was completed and shown to the world, the “revelation” of Holocaust had come and gone, along with the less remarked astonishment that an American-made melodramatic miniseries had served as a vehicle of historical enlightenment for the German public. For American television audiences, the Holocaust had become a chain of images long ago dislodged from their contexts: the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to starving Germans to fat businessmen with Louise Brooks look-alikes on their knees to Hitler at Nuremberg to bodies lying in piles like rags to men sitting in glass booths. Hannah Arendt’s notions of a “banality of evil” and a “blurring” of responsibility between Nazi torturers and victims had become truisms. The phrase “triumph of the human spirit” had become a tagline. Theodor Adorno’s exhaustively quoted 1949 statement “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” had been thoroughly decontextualized and reduced to an edict that a parent might deliver to a child. The Holocaust had been officially commemorated many times over, but the promise to “never forget” was enunciated not in a dialogue but in a grand monologue that was listened to politely, respectfully, and even attentively, but was a monologue nonetheless. The majority of the civilized world had systematically absolved itself of responsibility for its own disaster, “a huge fact lying overturned,” in the words of the writer and historian Todd Gitlin, “square in the middle of the through route to progress.” In short, the Holocaust was something that had mysteriously happened to someone else.

After Shoah, such complacency was no longer viable. Because Lanzmann did not make his film about “them.” He made it about us. All of us.

The idea for what would become Shoah arose in 1973, not with Lanzmann himself but with Alouph Hareven, then an official in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Lanzmann recounts in his 2009 autobiography The Pata­gonian Hare. “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view,” Hareven told Lanzmann. Let it be noted that Hareven did not use the word Holocaust (whose original meaning carries the implication of sacrifice) but the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, which had been in use among some Jews since the early forties. After Lanzmann decided to accept Hareven’s challenge, he was told by Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, that to make such a film—a film that would not simply summarize or dramatize the systematic annihilation of the European Jews but embody it and sound its depths—would be “impossible.” Who was this man who summoned the “sheer effrontery,” as Lanzmann himself would put it, to attempt such an undertaking?

Lanzmann was born nearly eighty-eight years ago into a Jewish family of Eastern European origin on both sides. The vividly detailed and excitingly paced The Patagonian Hare takes us through the experiences, impressions, and often hair-raising adventures that led to the grand and consuming work of Shoah, beginning with memories of the virulent anti-Semitism Lanzmann faced during his youth at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris and his identity card with the word juif stamped in red (as a precaution, his father had an alternate set of cards forged for the family without the racial designation). As a student during World War II, he joined a Resistance network called the FUJP (Forces unies de la jeunesse patriotique), which was actually controlled by the French Communist Party; Lanzmann would later break with the party when he was asked to betray the Resistance movement and his own father on the eve of a vast Resistance mobilization and offensive in the Massif Central region of France. After the war, he received his degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and then went to Germany to study at the University of Tübingen and later to teach at the Free University of Berlin. At the request of his students, Lanzmann taught a seminar on anti-Semitism, for which he was officially chastised by his hosts. When he wrote a two-part exposé for the Berliner Zeitung about the still-existing Nazi hierarchy at the university in 1949, he was officially relieved of his duties. Upon his return to France, he began his now legendary career as an investigative journalist, and a series of articles for Le monde under the heading “Germany Behind the Iron Curtain” attracted the attention of Jean-Paul Sartre. This marked the beginning of lifelong friendships of the soul with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (in the case of the latter, friendship bloomed into a seven-year love affair). Sartre and de Beauvoir invited Lanzmann to join the editorial board of Les temps modernes, the intellectual journal they had cofounded in 1945. He has been a regular presence at that magazine for seven decades and has served as its editor in chief since 1986.

Lanzmann’s link with Sartre seems to me crucial to his development as an ethically grounded artist. For the postwar generation and beyond, Sartre was the very model of the fully committed intellectual for whom the philosophi­cal, the political, the aesthetic, and the existential were tightly woven into one unbreakable cord. “The writer takes up the world as is,” wrote Sartre in What Is Literature?, “totally raw, stinking, and quotidian, and presents it to free people on a foundation of freedom … In a word, literature is essentially the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution.” For all that has been said and written about the gravity and solemnity of Shoah, it is a film made in the spirit of Sartre’s statement. It is neither hopeful nor hopeless but vibrantly and even defiantly alive, made by a man with a firm belief in art not as a repository of cultural detritus but as the great utopian domain of freedom.

My objective is to create my own world and these images which we create mean nothing more than the images which they are. We have forgotten how to relate emotionally to art: we treat it like editors, searching in it for that which the artist has supposedly hidden. It is actually much simpler than that, otherwise art would have no meaning. You have to be a child—incidentally children understand my pictures very well, and I haven’t met a serious critic who could stand knee-high to those children. We think that art demands special knowledge; we demand some higher meaning from an author, but the work must act directly on our hearts or it has no meaning at all.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from “Against Interpretation: An interview with Andrei Tarkovsky,” Framework no. 14, 1981

(Source: tarkovskian, via sirilaf)

Link: Super Position

David Graeber on superheroes, comics, and politics.

I. Let me clarify one thing from the start: Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises really is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda.  Nolan, the director, claims the script was written before the movement even started, and that the famous scenes of the occupation of New York (“Gotham”) were really inspired by Dickens’ account of the French Revolution.

This is probably true, but it’s disingenuous. Everyone knows Hollywood scripts are continually being rewritten while movies are in production, and that when it comes to messaging, even details like where a scene is shot (“I know, let’s have the cops face off with Bane’s followers right in front of the New York Stock Exchange!”) or a minor change of wording (“let’s change ‘take control of’ to ‘occupy’”) can make all the difference. Then there’s the fact that the villains actually do attack the Stock Exchange. Still, it’s precisely this ambition, the filmmaker’s willingness to take on the great issues of the day, that ruins the movie.

It’s sad, because both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had moments of genuine eloquence. In the first films of the trilogy, Nolan has some interesting things to say about human psychology, and, particularly, about the relationship between creativity and violence. The Dark Knight Rises is more ambitious. It dares to speak on a scale and grandeur appropriate to the times. And in doing so, it stuttered into incoherence.

II. Dark Knight Rises offers an opportunity to ask some potentially enlightening questions about contemporary culture. What are superhero movies really all about? What could explain the sudden explosion of such movies—one so dramatic that it sometimes seems that comic book-based movies are replacing sci-fi as the main form of Hollywood special effects blockbuster, almost as rapidly as the cop movie replaced the Western as the dominant action genre in the ‘70s?

Why, in the process, have familiar superheroes suddenly been given complex interiority: family backgrounds, ambivalence, moral crises and self-doubt? And why does the very fact of their receiving a soul seem to force them to also choose some kind of explicit political orientation?  One could argue that this happened first not with a comic-book character, but with James Bond. Casino Royale gave Bond psychological depth for the first time. By the very next movie he was saving indigenous communities in Bolivia from evil transnational water privatizers.  Spiderman, too, broke left in his latest cinematic incarnation, just as Batman broke right.

In a way, this makes sense. Superheroes are a product of their historical origins. Superman is a Depression-era displaced Iowa farm boy;  Peter Parker, a product of the ‘60s, is a smartass working-class kid from Queens; Batman, the billionaire playboy, is a scion of the military-industrial complex that was created, just as he was, at the beginning of World War II. But again, in the latest movie, the subtext became surprisingly explicit (“You’re not a vigilante,” says the police commander, “you’re an anarchist!”): particularly in the climax, where Spiderman, wounded by a police bullet, is rescued by an outbreak of working class solidarity as dozens of crane operators across defy city orders and mobilize to help him. Nolan’s movie is the most ambitious, but it also falls the most obviously flat. Is this because the superhero genre does not lend itself to a right-wing message?

III. Let’s start at the beginning, by looking specifically at the comic book stories where the TV shows, cartoon series and blockbuster movies ultimately came from.  Comic-book superheroes were originally a mid-century phenomenon, and like all mid-century pop culture phenomena, they are essentially Freudian.

Umberto Eco once remarked that comic book stories already operate a little bit like dreams: the same plot is repeated, obsessive-compulsively, over and over; nothing changes; and even as the backdrop for the stories shifts from Great Depression to World War to post-war prosperity, the heroes, whether they are Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Hornet, or the Mighty Thor, seem to exist in an eternal present, never aging, always the same.

The plot is almost always some approximation of the following: a bad guy, maybe a crime boss, more often a powerful supervillain, embarks on a project of world conquest, destruction, theft, extortion, or revenge. The hero is alerted to the danger and figures out what’s happening. After trials and dilemmas, at the last possible minute the hero foils the villain’s plans. The world is returned to normal until the next episode when exactly the same thing happens once again.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. These “heroes” are purely reactionary, in the literal sense. They have no projects of their own, at least not in their role as heroes: as Clark Kent, Superman may be constantly trying, and failing, to get into Lois Lane’s pants, but as Superman, he is purely reactive.  In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination: like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.

Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are endlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they’re having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, re-identify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the superego clubbing the errant Id back into submission.

Politically speaking, superhero comic books can seem pretty innocuous. If all a comic is trying to do is to tell a bunch of adolescent boys that everyone has a certain desire for chaos and mayhem, but that ultimately such desires need to be controlled, the implications would not seem especially dire, especially because the message still does carry a healthy dose of ambivalence. After all, the heroes of even the most right-leaning action movies seem to spend much of their time smashing up suburban shopping malls, something many of us would like to do at some point in our lives. In the case of most comic book superheroes, however, the mayhem has extremely conservative political implications. To understand why requires a brief digression on the question of constituent power.

IV. Costumed superheroes ultimately battle criminals in the name of the law—even if they themselves often operate outside a strictly legal framework. But in the modern state, the very status of law is a problem. This is because of a basic logical paradox: no system can generate itself.

Any power capable of creating a system of law cannot itself be bound by them. So law has to come from somewhere else. In the Middle Ages, the solution was simple: the legal order was created, either directly or indirectly, by God. God, as the Old Testament makes abundantly clear, is not bound by laws or even any recognizable system of morality, which only stands to reason: if you created morality, you can’t, by definition, be bound by it.  The English, American, and French revolutions changed all that when they created the notion of popular sovereignty—declaring that the power once held by kings is now held by an entity called “the people.”

“The people,” however, are bound by the laws. So in what sense can they have created them? They created the laws through those revolutions themselves,  but, of course, revolutions are acts of law-breaking. It is completely illegal to rise up in arms, overthrow a government, and create a new political order. Cromwell, Jefferson, and Danton were surely guilty of treason according to the laws under which they grew up, as surely as they would have been had they tried to do the same thing again twenty years later.

So, laws emerge from illegal activity. This creates a fundamental incoherence in the very idea of modern government, which assumes that the state has a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence (only the police, or prison guards, have the legal right to beat you up). It’s okay for police to use violence because they are enforcing the law; the law is legitimate because it’s rooted in the constitution; the constitution is legitimate because it comes from the people; the people created the constitution by acts of illegal violence. The obvious question, then, is:  how does one tell the difference between “the people” and a mere rampaging mob? There is no obvious answer.

The response, by mainstream, respectable opinion, is to try to push the problem as far away as possible. The usual line is: the age of revolutions is over, except perhaps in benighted spots like Gabon or Syria, and we can now change the constitution, or legal standards, by legal means. This of course means that the basic structures will never change. We can witness the results in the US, which continues to maintain an architecture of state, with its electoral college and two party-system, that—while quite progressive in 1789—now makes us appear, in the eyes rest of the world, the political equivalent of the Amish, still driving around with horses and buggies. It also means we base the legitimacy of the whole system on the consent of the people despite the fact that the only people who were ever really consulted on the matter lived over 200 years ago. In America, at least, “the people” are all long since dead.

We’ve gone, then, from a situation where the power to create a legal order derives from God, to one where it derives from armed revolution, to one where it is rooted in sheer tradition—“these are the customs of our ancestors, who are we to doubt their wisdom?” Of course, a not insignificant number of American politicians make clear they’d really like to give it back to God again. For the radical Left and the authoritarian Right the problem of constituent power is very much alive, but each takes diametrically opposite approaches to the fundamental question of violence.

The Left, chastened by the disasters of the 20th century, has largely moved away from its older celebration of revolutionary violence, preferring non-violent forms of resistance. Those who act in the name of something higher than the law can do so precisely because they don’t act like a rampaging mob.

For the Right, on the other hand—and this has been true since the rise of fascism in the ‘20s—the very idea that there is something special about revolutionary violence, anything that makes it different from mere criminal violence, is so much self-righteous twaddle. Violence is violence. But that doesn’t mean a rampaging mob can’t be “the people,” because violence is the real source of law and political order anyway. Any successful deployment of violence is, in its own way, a form of constituent power.

This is why, as Walter Benjamin noted, we cannot help but admire the “great criminal”: because, as so many movie posters put it, “he makes his own law.” After all, any criminal organization does, inevitably, begin developing its own—often quite elaborate—set of internal laws. They have to, as a way of controlling what would otherwise be completely random violence. From the right-wing perspective, that’s all that law ever is. It is a means of controlling the very violence that brings it into being, and through which it is ultimately enforced.

This makes it easier to understand the often surprising affinity between criminals, criminal gangs, right-wing political movements, and the armed representative state. Ultimately, they speak the same language. They create their own rules on the basis of force. As a result, they typically share the same broad political sensibilities. Mussolini might have wiped out the mafia, but Italian Mafiosi still idolize Mussolini. In Athens, nowadays, there’s active collaboration between the crime bosses in poor immigrant neighborhoods, fascist gangs, and the police. In fact, in this case it was clearly a political strategy: faced with the prospect of popular uprisings against a right-wing government, the police first withdrew protection from neighborhoods near the immigrant gangs, then started giving tacit support to the fascists. For the far-right, then, it is in that space where different violent forces operating outside of the legal order interact that new forms of power, and hence of order, can emerge.

Link: Tyrant of the Commune

"Meine Keine Familie" by Paul-Julien Robert. Documentary. 93min. 2012.

Paul-Julien Robert is an angry young man. And he has every right to be. Robert was born in 1979 to a young Swiss woman living in Friedrichshof, a famous, and later infamous, Austrian commune that was once the largest in Europe. Like so many utopian communities founded over the past two centuries on the principle of participatory democracy, this one was the brainchild of an individual visionary. He was Otto Mühl, a former Wehrmacht soldier who in the Sixties helped found the Actionist art movement in Vienna and who gained notoriety for his scoptophilic “performances” that involved naked people rolling around in paint and mud and feces groping each other, and often ended with Mühl either defecating on someone or urinating in a performer’s mouth. (YouTube will introduce you to his chefs d’oeuvre.)

In the early Seventies Mühl created a Wilhelm Reich-inspired group called the Aktionsanalytische Organisation (Action-analytical Organization), whose program was to liberate society from its psychological dependence on repressive bourgeois norms and consumerism through free love, let-it-all-hang-out group therapy, and a return to nature. He began acquiring followers and soon moved them to Friedrichshof in eastern Austria, where they eventually built an enormous complex that housed dozens of children, who slept communally in one area, and many more dozens of adults, who slept communally in another. They worked together, bore children together, educated them together, and spent their evenings entertaining each other. Films of the earlier years make the place seem idyllic. But over the years Mühl became increasingly dictatorial and in the Eighties it came to light that he was sexually abusing some of the children. The commune was dissolved, and in 1991 he was convicted of pedophilia and spent seven years in prison. He died this past May at the age of eighty-seven.

This is the environment Paul-Julien Robert grew up in, and which he evokes to devastating effect in his first film, Meine keine Familie, a documentary that recently opened in Austria and is now making the festival rounds. The title—which literally means “My No Family”—is a dark play on the common German phrase meine kleine Familie, “my little family.” An English title given in the press packet, “My Fathers, My Mother, and Me,” softens the force of the original and masks the fury that courses just under the film’s surface. Robert’s demeanor is calm but the questions he asks are sharp: How could parents have subjected their children to Mühl? What were they thinking? And why did my mother not protect me?

To make the film, Robert relied largely on the vast videotape library that the commune had amassed to document its experiences. We see footage of smiling long-haired men working the fields and women with closely-cropped hair running around topless, a baby hanging from each teat. We see naked children playing in the mud or smearing themselves with paint, as in a Mühl performance, to the delight of the grown-ups. We see a group of naked adults making a communal dash to a lake and diving in simultaneously, a scene that brings to mind the creepy German “physical culture” documentaries of the Thirties, which did so much to shape Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic. And we see a room full of naked adults rolling around on the floor in a therapeutic group grope, sometimes jumping up to deliver primal screams before diving back into the scrum. Robert also mixes in clips from Austrian news reports on the commune conducted by square journalists who posed square questions and obviously just didn’t get it, man.

But Meine keine Familie is no straightforward historical documentary on the rise and eventual collapse of Friedrichshof, or on the commune experiments of the Sixties and Seventies more generally, though it is certainly an indictment of these. It is instead the record of a young man’s quest to find out just who his father was. When Robert was born, a male commune member was assigned to be his legal father, since in the days before DNA testing paternity could not be established with certainty. He and his mother went through a marriage ceremony so he would be recognized as legitimate by the Austrian state, and in fact this man did keep an eye out for the boy. Then he committed suicide. And from then on Robert became obsessed with discovering and meeting his biological father. DNA tests were eventually performed and he learned that his father was another commune member who had been sent by Mühl to develop some property in the Canary Islands and never returned. We meet him in the film and he turns out to be a very nice and very tan older gentleman with a conventional family in a conventional house. Robert takes his mother to meet him and they have some equally nice but affectless chats around the dining room table. There are no emotional scenes, no epiphanies. The film is only half over and the focus shifts to its real subject: Robert’s mother.

Why she subjected herself to this ordeal is the film’s great mystery. She accompanies her son on many of his travels and is interviewed at every stop. She tries to remain serene as her son keeps pressing her for justifications of the commune experience. Things get especially uncomfortable when he interviews other commune children who are still nursing their psychological wounds and trying, usually unsuccessfully, to establish healthy relations with others. Step by step, Robert is building a case against her, and all she can do is take it. The weightiest charge is that she robbed him of normal family relations and of a father, leaving him emotionally stunted. Yes, there were many loving men in the group who were devoted to the children as a group, but no figure of authority and security devoted just to him. Another is that she failed to educate him or prepare him for life “out there.” Mühl’s pedagogical idea, common enough at the time, was that to build free spirits all you had to do was let kids play. And so they spent most of their time drawing, painting, running around in nature, and putting on performances of music, dance, and comic skits, rather than learning about the outside world. That might not have been so bad had these performances not turned into Otto Mühl’s private theater of cruelty.

Several times a week the entire “family” would gather for these performances, which Mühl would direct while seated in a throne-like chair, holding a microphone. Adults would get up and do free-form dance or present little vaudeville acts, hamming it up for the kids. And then all the children would perform together, singing and dancing beautifully (that part worked), or they would be called up one-by-one to do an act. These are the most riveting of the film clips used in Meine keine Familie. They begin to convey the claustrophobia the children must have experienced with Mühl, who would bully and bark orders over the mike: Stand! Sing! Move! Nein, nein, nein! The most excruciating moment comes when a very young boy who clearly hates performing is made to get up at the microphone. Mühl barks at him to start but all he can do is cry. Mühl then leaps out of his seat with a bottle of water, threatening to pour it over the boy if he doesn’t start. The nearly hysterical child starts blowing into a harmonica as his tears flow, but then can’t go on. Mühl empties the water on him, orders him off stage, and shouts that he’ll have to do it tomorrow.

It is only after this scene that the pedophilia is brought up, a subtle narrative move on Robert’s part. We are shocked but not surprised, given what we’ve seen so far of the megalomaniacal Mühl. Robert himself was not abused but we meet some young people who were. We learn from them that as the children grew into adolescence girls were regularly taken to Mühl for sexual initiation, while boys would be taken to the woman he called his wife for the same reason. And parents let this happen, either knowingly or out of studied ignorance. After being released from prison Mühl made a public apology for his behavior, but in subsequent interviews he seemed anything but repentant. In one, which Robert excerpts, he brags about how all the commune women wanted to sleep with him and how hard it was to escape them. Some even followed him into the toilet, he says, and wanted to wipe his bottom.

So what drew so many young people to this sociopath and kept them with him for so many years? Why did they adore him? Why did they turn a blind eye to the way their children were treated? To Robert’s evident frustration, his mother is unable to enlighten us. She is neither defensive nor flighty, just very adept at keeping reality at bay. One feels sorry for her, too. She tears up occasionally and says her son has the wrong picture of what it was like. Mühl was not so important, she says; we made our decisions together. The children seemed happy and they were saved from the stifling, soul-destroying childrearing practices of the middle classes. But she has no answers, and isn’t eager to find any. She is old now, nicely dressed, soft-spoken and all suffering. One sees that she has trouble digesting her son’s revelations and confessions; she genuinely has no idea how the experience scarred him. It’s not evident that the son understands that, or sees that she, too, suffered from the collapse of her illusions. He’s a sensitive but pitiless young man, which is what makes this such an extraordinarily gripping film. He does what Orestes would have done to Clytemnestra if someone had given him a camera.

Link: Surfacing Impunity: Emma Myers interviews Joshua Oppenheimer

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers to the sound of trumpets.” No one captures the problematic pretense of impunity better than Voltaire—except perhaps documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. The director’s new and profoundly disturbing film, The Act of Killing, opens with a direct nod to the philosopher, if only to one-up him. In an effort to expose the moral murkiness behind Indonesia’s 1965 and 1966 government sponsored purges, Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with a group of perpetrators whose attempts at self-glorification are enough to make a full brass band seem understated.

Documenting a fictive take on reality rather than reality per se, The Act of Killing unfolds in an unnerving aesthetic overlap between the surreal and the hyperreal. The subjects of the film, former members of the country’s vigilante military Pancasila Youth Party, go to theatrical extremes to reenact the atrocities they committed. In addition to recruiting women and children to act out large-scale massacres, the men stage interrogations, beatings, and executions, as well as costumed and almost hallucinogenic musical numbers in which dancers emerge from the mouth of a gargantuan metal fish.

Despite the overall effect of visceral and ethical nausea, moments of uncomfortable humor arise out of the disjunction between what we know about the subjects’ past and the way we see them behave in the present. When they drunkenly belt out Bob Dylan lyrics or stop filming because the call to prayer demands a moment of spiritual reverence, the viewer is forced into a state of cognitive dissonance. But as the Oppenheimer observes, the Manichean divide of good guys and bad guys can “only exist in movies.”

Oppenheimer’s camera adheres most closely to Anwar Congo, the charismatic—and at times disarmingly open—leader of a small band of party alumni. We first meet Anwar on a Medan rooftop that once served as a primary execution zone. Dressed in a silk suit, he matter-of-factly describes his preferred method of killing: strangulation with a wire—the most effective and least bloody way to take a life. Anwar’s ease around Oppenheimer translates to a queasy intimacy that permeates the film. Oppenheimer remains all but invisible as Anwar switches between recounting his nightmares and the brutal highlights of his career, but when he does interject the effect is chilling. After Anwar claims that the reenactments have made him feel empathy with the victims, Oppenheimer flatly points out the key difference between drama and reality: the loss of life.

I sat down with Oppenheimer one dreary morning at his publicist’s cozy Soho office. Unassuming and exactingly articulate, for the duration of our conversation he never twitched or fidgeted or broke eye contact. His manner of speaking—slow, assured, and slightly sibilant—has a calming effect that commands rather than demands attention. Our discussion centered on his creative process and how he managed to maintain sanity and distance while producing his new work.

Guernica: You’ve been working in Indonesia for about twelve years now. What led you there initially?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.

Guernica: Anwar is an incredible central subject because he’s so charismatic and open. What do you look for when you’re casting and how do you know when you’ve found your subject?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I wasn’t actually looking for the right central character because what seemed most important throughout the journey was always changing. I began the project on behalf of the community of survivors and they didn’t know how their relatives had been killed; they just knew they’d been taken away and never came back. I was filming the perpetrators and moving my way across the region assuming I would make a film out of boastful testimony, for lack of a better word, and of these sorts of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. I worked my way up the chain of command from the plantation region around Medan, to Medan, and then beyond to some retired army generals in Jakarta and ex-CIA officers living outside of D.C. Everybody was boastful, everybody was taking me to the places where they had killed. I expected to make a film that involved a great many people, but at some point I shifted from what had happened—how people had been killed—to how this whole society (and normality) had been built on terror and lies and mass graves.

It wasn’t like I was looking for my main character, but I lingered on Anwar because his pain was close to the surface. As he began to suggest what he called “improvements” to the reenactments, I started to understand that he was actually trying to run away from the meaning of what he’d done. In that first scene where he dances on the roof, I think he is disturbed about what he did on that roof, but he doesn’t dare say it because he’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong. He takes that disturbed feeling and projects it onto his clothes, onto his hair, onto his acting and suggests “improvements.” Each reenactment was another incredible allegory for impunity and I knew that through these dramatizations we could hold a very dark mirror up to him and up to the whole society. It was much more a process of discovery than a casting process.

Guernica: There is a sense of intimacy between the two of you that comes through in the film. Was the sense of comfort immediate, or did it take time to build?

Joshua Oppenheimer: It took time. But he was fairly open—when he first says to me on the roof that he drinks and does drugs and dances to forget what he’s done, I think I was so shocked by his dancing on the site where he’d killed that I was not ready to receive his openness. I was seeing something monstrous, but he was open from the beginning. I would always condemn the crimes that these men had committed and were still committing through extortion and so forth, but one of my main principles was that I should never condemn them as a whole person. And I guess I realized that before I met Anwar. All the perpetrators I filmed before him were ordinary people with wives, with children, with grandchildren. They could be caring, they could be arrogant: they were normal people. And I realized that I would fail in my effort to shed light on how human beings live with our actions if I start condemning people in my head as monsters. If I did that, it would be primarily to reassure myself that I’m not like them—to distance myself from them. I don’t believe you can make an honest film about another person in all their complexities from a place of distance. You can make a journalistic report, you can judge someone from a distance, but you can’t really get to know them. So that was a rule I set for myself: every time during filming if I felt I was just starting to hate Anwar, I would force myself to stop and take a few days, pull myself together, and give myself time to process whatever it was I had heard and then come back.

Guernica: What was it like for you psychologically and emotionally to spend so much time with these men?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I started the journey feeling like I was working on behalf of survivors, looking for the men who had done this to them, seeing the killers as embodiments of evil. But there was also an element of fascination there—going into the heart of darkness—and that implicates me and it implicates the viewer, because that’s what we look for in movies. We go to movies to see people get their heads blown off—not all of us—but that’s something peculiar about what it means to be human. As I filmed more and more of them—Anwar was the forty-first killer I filmed—I quickly realized that I was meeting ordinary people, and that I could like them. On the one hand I was hearing these horrible things, particularly as Anwar started going through the worst parts of what he did with abandon. It was giving me nightmares, and for about six months I had insomnia. At the same time of course I became numb, which is a good thing, because you can’t make the film if you’re emotionally devastated at every moment. But it also meant that there were these very shocking pitfalls along the way.

The most memorable pitfall was the very last time I filmed with Anwar. Just as Anwar can’t look at the true meaning of what he’s done, I also would have to suspend my disbelief and not see—bracket my awareness of the horror. When we were on the roof the very last time I filmed him and he starts to retch, as a human being who actually has some kind of love for this man after filming him for years, I wanted to put my arm around him and say “its going to be OK,” which is this crazy thing we say in English. I remember thinking “but its not going to be OK.” And that’s what he’s going through now: the horror of realizing that somehow he’s damned, that he has destroyed himself. And that was awful for me too. The numbness was necessary, but it was also like a false bottom. Suddenly the floor would drop out from underneath you and you’d be standing above an abyss.

Guernica: Did you find yourself needing to buy into the killers’ justifications?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The challenge was that even though there’s a necessary numbness—and part of that was a kind of graveyard humor that my crew and I would develop—you have to always remember the moral significance of what you’re doing. Because my project was trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of the survivors—and not to Westerners, who don’t necessarily care, but to Indonesians—I really felt that I was harvesting these celebratory moments as metaphors or allegories for impunity. I was precisely not seeing them as moments of justification. I was resistant to the film being a psychodrama; it would be perverse to visit the killers on behalf of the thousands that were killed and then lead them toward redemption. There is no redemption in the end. It’s an anti-catharsis. Anwar exposes how corrupt and empty the system they’ve built really is. Nausea is shown to be the condition of a culture founded on mass murder.