If it turned out that Adolf Hitler was still alive, the pursuit of an interview with him would be huge. As would the ratings. People love villains, love hearing about how and why they came to be. Whether the Nazi dictator showed remorse or not, so long as his evils remained in the past his comments about them would be compelling. But if he seemed to be using the platform to really celebrate the Holocaust, maybe even promote its reprisal, then that would get into trickier territory. Just how much of a voice do we want to give someone who’d possibly have influence over the audience? Even one viewer turned neo-Nazi by way of the interview is too many.
But it’s not a journalist or documentarian’s fault if that happens, right? No more than violent video games and movies turn kids into killers. And in the mind of the objective reporter, every opinion deserves to be heard. Even if it’s a schoolteacher implying that a gender-nonconforming teenager deserved the two bullets he received in the back of his head. Even if it’s missionaries in Africa preaching that homosexuality is wrong. Even if it’s Indonesian gangsters still reveling in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. But it is one thing to offer balanced viewpoints on a debatable topic like abortion or economic systems or the environment, and it’s another to hand the microphone to someone advocating outright hate or, worse, death.
I’m not a fan of when documentaries villainize people for the sake of the narrative. And I try my hardest not to judge the real-life characters in nonfiction films (I have written before about how critics shouldn’t criticize documentary subjects). This year, however, I’ve been having a more difficult time than usual with certain subjects and commentators appearing in docs. These are not people simply spouting opinions I disagree with. That is fine. Everyone is entitled to not only hate a group of people but to also share that perspective with the rest of the world. I think I’d like to draw a line, though, with giving a mouthpiece to anyone bolstering bloodshed. If that’s not totally what’s happening already, I fear we’re possibly headed in that direction.
“They had every right to air their opinion,” Marta Cunningham said of the numerous bigots appearing in her film Valentine Road, in my interview with her posted last week. This doc begins as being about the tragic shooting of Larry King, murdered by his classmate because of how he dressed and acted and because he was either gay or transgender. Then it adds in the focus on the shooter’s trial and how he too was a victim of sorts and how he shouldn’t be tried as an adult. And between the two directions are interviews with the killer’s girlfriend, a teacher, a child psychologist and even members of the original jury in his trial who not so much support the cause of getting him into a juvenile court but who support the actual crime he committed.
“I think it’s really important to understand that in 2013 people still feel this way,” Cunningham continued, “and it’s better to know it than not know it. We can’t just live in our comfortable bubble surrounded by people who understand difference. We have to understand why they don’t accept difference, so we can change that.”
Fair enough on the awareness factor, but Valentine Road doesn’t exactly explore why these people are intolerant nor how to change them. It just shows us that intolerance exists on a very disturbing level in this particular community. While the teacher states in the film that Larry deserved at least a beating for being gay (she says she “doesn’t know” if she’d have used a gun against him) and that middle schoolers will be middle schoolers (i.e. innocently homophobic, apparently), Cunningham intercuts with close ups on Christian items in her home. That’s a very indirect insinuation that’s nearly as stereotypical as the interviewee herself, not an understanding of why she doesn’t accept a kid cross-dressing at her school, even if her religious beliefs are indeed a factor.
And any Christian’s belief that homosexuality is a sin, as awful as it is, isn’t necessarily a call for them to be executed by law. In God Loves Uganda, director Roger Ross Williams allows a predominant amount of screen time to members of the International House of Prayer, including Evangelical missionaries in the African country set on saving and converting its citizens, preaching to them that gays and lesbians are Biblically and therefore morally wrong. These missionaries aren’t tied to Scott Lively, the conservative Christian leader who influenced Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and its proposed death sentence, and some of them even unbelievably claim ignorance to the proposed law in the film, but none ever appear as concerned about it nor as opposed to it. Well, relative innocence isn’t necessarily a lack of guilt.
Williams comes off as fairly objective throughout much of his documentary in spite of conclusively being on the side of Uganda’s LGBT community rather than the IHOP characters he gives so much of a platform to. Should he be considered complicit in whatever effects this spotlight on hateful ideas might add up to? Or is it up to us to realize he’s featuring them to incite a presumably intelligent and tolerant audience against what they’re doing? Protest if we want to? But is any IHOP or other evangelical devotee able to watch God Loves Uganda and feel themselves challenged let alone damned by it? The fair depiction is too easy on them.
Unrelated to the anti-gay outlet that is those two films, there is The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer’s highly acclaimed documentary, presented prestigiously by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, provides a platform for former Indonesian death squad leaders as they honor their own human rights violations through song and dance and jocular reenactments. I can appreciate some of the irony the movie is playing with, mainly what it says about the universal popularity of film protagonists who are bad guys (never mind the antiheroes), albeit ones usually far tamer and of course fictional compared to the unapologetic sociopaths Oppenheimer has on display. Also, the way it holds a mirror to the rest of the world is valuable.
Yet, at least one film critic is totally against The Act of Killing’s showcase of genocidal murderers. About.com documentary specialist Jennifer Merin calls it “a sleazy, garish, confusing and obscene treatment of genocide” and argues that its emotional disconnect and lack of attention on the victims and the suffering that occurred then and since is “downright dangerous” and “disrespectful.” She also quotes the BBC’s Nick Fraser as comparing it to if a “documentary filmmaker went down to Argentina, found some ex-Nazis and gave them some money to make a film about how much fun they’d had killing Jews during the Holocaust.” And the only reason we’re more okay with what Oppenheimer does is due to our own racism and ignorance regarding Asians.
Merin names some better films about genocide, such as Enemies of the People, and I think the difference with that and others is that their subjects are no longer in power. Khmer Rouge “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea is speaking about something in the past, widely condemned, knowing he’s about to be tried as a war criminal. Similarly, subjects in films facing tribunals, whether they be Nazis or African warlords (Nuremberg; War Don Don), as well as films about U.S. political figures under scrutiny (The Trials of Henry Kissinger; Morris’s The Fog of War) and seemingly sympathetic docs on Death Row inmates who are definitely guilty (Herzog’s Into the Abyss; Nick Broomfield’s two films on Aileen Wuornos), all are answering for something that’s done and finished. So are the men in The Act of Killing, but they’re also answering for an ongoing acceptance and justification and therefore a potential future endorsement of such crimes.
Those in The Act of Killing still hold influence, at least in their part of the world. So do the horrible people in Valentine Road and God Loves Uganda. Imagine how different we’d feel about The Triumph of the Will if the Nazis had won, were still in power. Would we still consider it a classic production of propaganda or a dangerous continued work of influence? When it was made, before the true evils of Hitler and the Nazis came to light, it may not have seemed all that alarming nor revealing.
Films like those brought up here are alarming, and maybe they will be useful in their exposure even if they hardly condemn the bigotry and heinousness of their characters outright so much as they assume we will view them as reprehensible, because they are obviously reprehensible. Many documentarians are interested in humanizing rather than presenting anyone as black-and-white good or evil, and a lot are interested in taking a back seat and let us make up our own minds about whether a subject is driving through life well or not. With matters of life or death, though, we should all be in agreement about certain people who aren’t worth the attention, at least not until they’re up for punishment or at least they’re called out for their hate and crimes on camera.
The Act of Killing is currently still in theaters, while God Loves Uganda opens this Friday. Valentine Road recently debuted on HBO and is available through HBO GO.