Can a documentary change your life?

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) changed the way we think about documentary. The material itself is eye-opening; forcing incredulity upon its audience through creatively re-imagining the past. But, peeling back those fabricated layers, what the film really shows is the falsity of history: a series of stories told by, at best, unreliable narrators, and at worst, ideological tyrants. The Act of Killing seeks to inform us with paradox: what we glean from the film is that we can never really know the past, and we have to accept that we won’t always understand the actions of others – even after they’ve been explained to us.

Beyond this intellectual actualisation, I can’t help but think that the film falls short of its supposed brilliance. Surely watching socially or politically charged documentaries should achieve something more than cognition! Films like The Act of Killing, by pure virtue of being historically revisionist, allow me to leave the auditorium and return to my own life outside with relative ease.

Under the guise of Film Critic I see my responsibility as concerned with interpretation, analysis, deconstruction and discussion. Even in those rare, wonderful instances when a film moves me emotionally, I am always still well enough removed from the material to complete my task of translating affect into words. Increasingly for me there is something troubling about how easy I find it to cast off once the credits roll.

Since The Act of Killing has continued to gather attention and acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, I’ve wondered what it would take for a documentary film to make a real difference to my life – that is, outside the auditorium, when the mediating apparatus is switched off and the screen is gone.

When the Academy Award went to Twenty Feet From Stardom there was a spatter of outrage from those who thought Oppenheimer’s political pot-stirrer was the more deserving film. Apparently Morgan Neville’s tribute to the hard slog of the world’s most well known yet anonymous back-up singers wasn’t gritty or clever enough. Though I’ve never had much faith in the Academy’s opinions anyway, it did get me thinking – Twenty Feet From Stardom must have won based on its ability to elicit an emotional response from the judges. But if The Act of Killing really is the game-changer we all think it is, why did I leave the auditorium and carry on with my life as if I’d never seen it?

I have, in the months since seeing Oppenheimer’s film, been actively looking for life-changing documentary affect, beyond the kind of academic appreciation or polemical provocation I usually engage with – and then quickly forget. So I travelled to Prague to watch twenty documentaries in less than ten days. If anything could bring my simmering convictions to the boil, surely it would be Jeden Svet, the world’s largest international human rights documentary film festival.

The festival opened with Miners Shot Down (2014), a film about the 2012 Marikana massacre in South Africa. There were no surprises when the film revealed members of government, police, and corporate moguls at Lonmin mining were in each other’s pockets – and in each other’s ears with the orders to shoot and each other’s pockets besides. What was surprising, however, was that the filmmakers had somehow managed to access police footage of the events leading up to and including the massacre. It showed the shootings but most shockingly it lingered on several of the victims as they lay dying, deliberately denied the medical care that could have saved their lives. The scene was restricted and ambulances were refused access for two hours after the shootings so that only the police who fired at the miners were capable of helping them. Devastatingly, as the audience witnesses, the officers simply let the camera roll and made idle chitchat amongst themselves.

Giving the viewer the killers’ POV is the stuff of horror films and watching, as I did, was itself an act of voyeurism and inaction, making me somehow implicit in the crimes. Getting up and walking out when the film finished didn’t seem right; tears and sympathy, though both were flowing, didn’t do anything useful. When the credits rolled I was amazed – but all I felt was the familiar sting of helplessness. Following the film was a decadent after-party and while at first, no one felt much like celebrating, several Czech beers later, there we all were, musing over the film’s merits with canapés and apathy, soon to resume our cinephilic but politically-sedated lives.

As the festival wore on, I dragged my helplessness from one cinema to another across the cobbled streets of Prague. I managed to shake my apathy every time a gut-wrenching story hit the screen, but I soon found it was always lurking just around the corner. It returned when I watched documentaries like American Winter (2012), a film that follows the effects of the GFC on several middle class American families, and when I saw Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013), one that ponders just how feminist the Ukraine agitprop group Femen really are (certainly not as feminist as I’d previously been led to believe). These films and others, though informative, do little more than pile up in the waste bin of my cinema-going life.

It’s not a question of polish either. In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation between high production values and the ease with which I find myself able to return to my daily gaze once I leave the cinema. Putin’s Games (2013) gave me a chuckle as it made fun of the great dictator’s ludicrous struggle against nature, building new ski runs where he was advised not to – cue avalanche – but immediately afterwards I strolled across the Charles Bridge and marvelled at the shiny gold restoration atop the National Theatre.

The Blocher Experience (2013) was more polished still, and the crown jewel of the festival cinematically-speaking. Blending voice-of-God narration with framing that mimics portraiture, The Blocher Experience offers a vision of Christian Blocher, the Swiss right-wing politician, which was both chilling and thoughtful. The narration concerned his political actions, of course, but it also pondered his motivations, his life, and how his ordinariness was made good by capitalism. The film itself is a work of art; it frames its protagonist in the same balanced way that one might handle a priceless painting. Of course, though visually striking, the image is not necessarily pleasing.

Web Junkie (2013) is another film impressive to the intellect. In China, Internet addiction has been classified as a clinical illness. As such, there are some 400 institutions across the country where teenagers are sent for military-style detox and societal reprograming. Cleverly treating each element of the issue with the same level of scepticism, it becomes impossible to assign blame between child, parent and institution. Certainly the conditions on the compound seem harsh for what is essentially a crimeless incarceration. From the viewpoint of both their parents and the authorities, however, the situation is extreme: the children are considered ‘at risk’, on a par with heroin addicts.

What’s most revealing, as the case studies slowly play out, is that the youths who find themselves in this situation represent a generation born under the one-child policy. Perhaps the reason China is the only country to classify Internet addiction as a clinical illness is because it’s also the only country with an entire generation – mostly boys – who feel estranged from their families and society at large. The pressure levelled at them from every authority turns them into school statistics and stops them from feeling like whole human beings. By the time the film finishes the issue resembles a Rubik’s cube. Though I found this documentary fascinating – and was even somewhat enlightening – it still didn’t change anything so far as my own life outside the cinema was concerned.

Of the twenty documentaries I managed, there were only two that really got to me – that really changed the way I’ll think about documentary forever. The first, and most surprising, was Infiltrators (2012). The opening sequence is extremely difficult to watch, not due to content but for style. Much of the filming takes place at night – without artificial lighting in dimly lit areas; the result is grainy and dark. In short it’s of the quality one would expect to see on YouTube, not on the big screen at an international film festival.

Of course, the reason it looks like this is because there’s no other way to film it. Following a group of Palestinian workers who exist in that liminal space known as the border between the West Bank and Israel – their communities, houses, families, and often their employment obfuscated by an oppressive symbol of segregation – we see their daily attempts to cross the border illegally. The aesthetic is jarring because there’s no time to set up multiple cameras, to wait for good natural light or to establish sufficient artificial alternatives. There’s no budget and no studio at the end of the shoot with a paycheque to fix it in post. It’s aim, shoot, cut, edit, screen. Personally, I’m not interested in the artful agenda of DIY – but this isn’t what characterises Infiltrators. It’s a political aesthetic, and one barely seen since the days of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino published and practised their manifesto, Towards a Third Cinema.

Finally, and most significantly there was Notes From the Dark. Aleppo (2014). What this film shows is enough to change a life. It’s one thing to follow conflict reportage in the news and through current affairs outlets but nothing I’d read, heard or looked at could have prepared me for what I would see in this film. Though it hasn’t made an investigative journalist of me or even a supremely vigilant activist, it has changed me as a film critic, which is more than I could ever have imagined any film could do.

Trailer “Aleppo. Notes from the dark” from Studio Szumowski on Vimeo.

Every mind-numbing post-apocalyptic blockbuster I’ve ever seen has tried to capture what the end of the world would look like. I’ve never been truly convinced by anyone’s vision. Terrifyingly, now I know its aesthetic: Aleppo. With sniper rifles shooting at anyone who dares step out into the streets, with bombs destroying schools, churches, mosques and residential housing daily, and with nowhere to go but behind a crumbling concrete wall, the vision is more harrowing than anything I have seen. More than half of the people I got to know onscreen were dead by the time the film had finished screening, and it’s likely at the time of writing this article that those few who saw its completion are no longer alive.

I’ve long since realised that Hollywood blockbuster cinema isn’t my cup of tea, not least because it doesn’t need me to survive. But what I have realised is that some filmmakers are saying things of truly great importance and urgency. And if those people are going to risk their lives to say them, then the least I can do is give my time and energy to writing about them. I’m not declaring that I’ll never see another blockbuster again, but what I am saying is that the films with true integrity, themselves pieces of journalism, deserve championing by those of us with a voice. Leaving the auditorium, too often I feel helpless and apathetic. But my responsibility, I now realise, is so much more than interpretation, analysis, deconstruction and discussion. Having a voice is a privilege and even if I can’t know the world – past or present – and even if I will never understand the actions of others, what I know I won’t do is take the act of viewing so lightly ever again.

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your musings in this piece. Strikes me that the questions you’re asking of documentary could also be asked of human rights. Human rights advocacy seems very often to become all about raising awareness, and peddling cognition. Human rights abuses are met with the remorse and recrimination of “If only we’d known… we could have done something.” Cognition becomes the condition of action, and sometimes a replacement.

  2. No.

    Those who have made a doco know the abiding question: why not do something about the situation being confronted (poverty or whatever) rather than filming it with an documental / aesthetic mind bent.

  3. Thanks Philip,

    I think another reason it’s been on my mind, and that I didn’t get to writing about here, is because in a number of the films I’ve been seeing, there is a great sense of urgency in getting the information out on contemporary issues and raising awareness while something can be done. But there is one really notable absence – where’s the documentary about asylum seekers being held in detention?

    I do also agree with you about cognition becoming a replacement for action; it’s troubling.

    Ethical Absolute – thanks for your comment too.
    I do think it can be more complicated than than though. There is a moment in Notes From the Dark. Aleppo where the filmmaker is crying as he records a housing complex falling down on civilians. Through the dust and with people flocking he talks about wanting to put the camera down to help as there are three things that a another civilian bystander can do: 1) help pull people out of the rubble, 2) call for help, 3) bring water. With so many others doing those jobs, and with great moral difficulty I might add, he concludes that he should continue to film so that the western world can see and then they can intervene (probably a naive hope).

    It’s true that Notes From the Dark. Aleppo is a world apart from most of these other films, but perhaps if you’re a filmmaker than making a film is what you can do that’s useful? I’m not disagreeing with you but I think there are grey areas.

    1. Nice article by the way, and I wasn’t really disagreeing either, more being provocative, as I do have a passion for documentary, but hold still to the idea that it’s asking too much of cultural forms like documentary film, protest songs etc to change social realities. These forms can effect a difference in thinking, for sure, but too often, through saturation, a reversal takes place and it becomes a case of seen or heard one, seen or heard them all; or worse (tv news and current affairs), social issues becoming real only when they appear on screen, and if they don’t, they don’t exist at all. Also, à propos of (!!!???) after I watched the whole 10 hours and 13 minutes of Shoah in one hit when it first came out I never wanted to, and haven’t since, watched or read anything on the Holocaust.

  4. Ethical Relativity,
    I definitely agree. And you are very brave to watch Shoah in one go! I’m still yet to see it, it’s not the easiest film to get hold of.

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