Rob Edelman: Two Documentaries

Feb 10, 2014

These days, when it comes to the Academy Awards, documentaries too often are shoved aside. The media spotlight is on the celebrities, the high-profile feature films, which films or actors were nominated and which were overlooked, and who likely will walk off with Oscar.

But plenty of outstanding documentaries are being produced these days, so much so that one justifiably lauded doc did not earn a nomination. That film is STORIES WE TELL, directed by Sarah Polley: a revealing, brutally honest biographical film which at once is Polley's effort to keep her late mother alive, to keep her in memory, and to inquire into issues relating to her mother's past and Polley's birth. STORIES WE TELL is available on DVD, and it is well-worth seeking out.

Each of the five documentaries that did earn Oscar nominations is exceptional, however, so it is not as if STORIES WE TELL has been cheated out of a nomination. And two of them, which also are out on DVD, are as far-removed from STORIES WE TELL as can be. Both are highly political. Both are tough to watch, but are must-see moviemaking. While viewing them, I found myself constantly shaking my head in dismay at what I was seeing.

In THE ACT OF KILLING, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, several older Indonesian men recall their formative years, when they were sanctioned to murder opponents of their county's military dictatorship, which had overthrown their government in 1965.

They proudly describe themselves as "gangsters." "It was like we were killing... happily," one of them observes. Another quote also oozes irony. That is: "I'm a gangster. A free man." What is amazing here is that these men readily admit their murderous behavior, only they do not view it as illegal or immoral. And because they want to be remembered, they agree to participate in the filming of reenactments of their atrocities.

THE ACT OF KILLING is a unique documentary which offers a revealing exploration of the nature of evil, and how certain individuals rationalize the worst kind of behavior.

DIRTY WARS, directed by Richard Rowley, is a powerful, disturbing documentary which charts various covert operations sanctioned by the U.S. in its war on terror. At the center of the film is Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter. Scahill narrates the film, which records his inquiry into such operations starting with a night raid which results in the deaths of five individuals during a family celebration. They include a U.S.-trained Afghan policeman and a couple of pregnant women.

This film's agenda is clear from its opening moments. Here, a U.S. soldier cannot even pronounce the name of the Afghan tribe he is supposed to be protecting. Scahill's comment is: "This is supposed to be the frontline on the war on terror." And throughout, he reports on the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command, otherwise known as JSOC, which is charged with carrying out these operations at the command of the U.S. President.

In DIRTY WARS, some pertinent questions are asked. The first is: How do you really combat terrorism? And also: Is the slaughter of innocent victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time justified in this war on terror? If you think it is justified, doesn't this make you just as duplicitous as the "terrorists" you are combatting?

Also, is it morally right simply to deny or cover up the killings of innocent people in the hope that the media and the public will ignore these tragedies? And lastly, what are you accomplishing by victimizing innocent individuals? Aren't you politicizing them? Aren't you transforming them into America's new enemies?

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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