Obama’s Swagger & Other

Acts of Violence:

True/False Fest 2013

By Gerald Sim

Presupposing that documentary film festivals of a certain size can offer fairly legible bird’s eye views of social and political moments, makes it easy to discover broad narratives coursing through the slate at True/False. It is the likely result of savvy programming assisted by structural currents sweeping across filmmakers’ collective imaginations. The festival’s third day has frequently brought about a Saturday epiphany of sorts, when I am struck with an enlightening sense that the films have lent clarity to what is happening the world. It did not take even that long this year, when two iconic episodes appearing in one film and then another, announced themselves as cultural touchstones.

The images of Barack Obama’s steady but eager walk through the Cross Hall into the East Room of the White House where he announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, rest at the nexus of films with wildly divergent views of the ongoing wars in the Middle East. Obama’s address that night is rarely unaccompanied by the equally familiar footage of the spontaneous rally outside the White House, and so it easy to remember the moment as one that provided national catharsis and closure to America’s 2001 trauma. We now know that the visual records of that speech itself are not completely trustworthy, for the President first delivered his remarks for a single video camera, before reenacting his address for a corps of photographers.[1] That contingency portends how the historical meaning of the al Qaeda leader’s demise and of the raid in Abbottabad is being contested.

The procession of news specials, television movies, and Zero Dark Thirties shows that public appetite for another telling of the story is insatiable and not yet abating.[2] One should expect that every last drop of pleasure would be extracted from this, in a conflict where clear victories are difficult to come by, let alone define. The latest offering in this backslapping ritual is Manhunt (Greg Barker, US/UK, 2013), told as Zero Dark Thirty is, from the perspective of the CIA. Familiar events from the Bigelow film reappear as if to verify her and screenwriter Mark Boal’s version of events, in case anyone dare speculate that they had over-applied artistic license. For those who posit that Bigelow might be using feminism for ideological cover – where Homeland (Showtime, US, 2011–) and Claire Danes have to surely be part of the discussion – Manhunt does little to assuage suspicion. Part mystery and part crime procedural, it too packages itself as a story driven by a group of women who wade through moral dilemmas to capture bin Laden. But if screen time is any indication, the female analysts seem to only bookend a male dominated operation, in which prominent interviewee and ex-CIA operative Marty Martin for instance, is that brash heavy-set American right out of central casting. In the end, immoral choices are not absolved by progressive gender ideology, but are instead rather effectively smothered by the emotional memories that many have of Obama’s announcement that spring night. Manhunt deploys that scene fully intending for the narrative resolution offered by the radioed report of “Geronimo E.K.I.A.” to justify everything.

Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, US, 2013)

Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars (US, 2013) attempts mightily to recast that legend before it ossifies, challenging viewers to grasp America’s overseas military operations and domestic political history of the past decade as inextricable from the steadily expanding influence of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during both Bush and Obama administrations. Through The Nation’s pugnacious correspondent Jeremy Scahill, the film tracks the elite unit’s deadly activities by its bloody trail of collateral damage, executed without visibility or accountability. The remarkable silhouetted celebration of Seal Team Six, it argues, marks JSOC’s coming out party as it transitions strategically from secrecy to daylight. Shots of the President’s quiet swagger into the East Room therefore, serve here not to conclude a story, but as the start of an ominous era where the state places American citizens on a kill list and hunts them.

The political news of this past February and March elicited an acute feeling that the issue of extrajudicial assassination is replacing the moral debate over torture. John Brennan began his confirmation hearings as Obama’s nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on February 7. The President’s chief advisor on counterterrorism had in fact withdrawn himself from consideration for the same job in 2008 over his support for advanced interrogation techniques – old news, it seems, in light of his new nickname, “assassination czar.”[3] The specter of these events primed the festival audience for Rowley and Scahill’s case, while also reorienting how we understand The Gatekeepers (IL/FR/BE/DE, 2012), director Dror Moreh’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about Shin Bet, Israel’s secretive internal security service. In the current context, the film’s presentation of Israel’s suspended morality in the service of its counterterrorist assassination strategy becomes less a window into another country’s deeds and more a mirror of our own. The U.S. Senate confirmed Brennan as CIA Director four days after the festival.

Stylistically, Rowley’s choices for Dirty Wars are simultaneously interesting and problematic. He and Scahill chose not have the latter merely drone in a journalistic voiceover. Scahill literally “stars” in the film as if Jason Bourne were reborn as an all-action intrepid reporter: speaking to a source at a clandestine meeting in one scene, speaking in a tunic with locals in the next, tracked by handheld shots striding into a newsroom in another. Ostentatious wide-angled, shallow focus shots in both close-up and long shot suggest that he was under surveillance. One can hardly be surprised if he was indeed being watched, but the overdramatic soliloquies and staccato shots punctuated by camera shutter sounds add up to an overload of formal devices that distracts, bemuses, and even verges on unseemly. And while I am hardly recommending that more documentary makers adopt Frontline’s (PBS, 1983–) austerity, the polish and overly slick Dirty Wars too often tempts me to dismiss Scahill for self-aggrandizement. At a minimum, it muddles his brutally compelling chronicle of fatal tragedies that continue to be criminally underreported. True to form, filmmaker-friendly True/False hosted both Scahill and Rowley. In person, Scahill came off as earnest and eager to be the corrective against the mainstream American news media that have dropped the ball.

By contrast, two Russian films conveyed urgency without stylistic mediations. When Vladimir Putin ran for his third term as president in the winter of 2012, the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta put cameras in the hands of 10 graduates from Marina Razbezhkina’s School of Documentary Film and Documentary Theatre. The resulting chronicle of the campaign through to the election’s immediate aftermath is Winter, Go Away! (Elena Khoreva et al, RU, 2012). The lenses document massive anti-Putin protests that are most likely unknown to American audiences ensnared themselves in the media frenzy of their own election year. Beyond the odd question of who is president, Russian politics do not usually register on the domestic radar. But it is eerie to see handheld footage of police actions against citizen protests, or of election day shenanigans, when Americans hold fairly fresh and comparable memories – of police brutality from Occupy movements, in addition to stories of voter intimidation. Films like this and the similarly effective Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, RU/UK, 2013) seem content to allow their relatively transparent mode of narration to do most of the work, as if all they can currently afford is the simple desire for someone else to bear witness.

Festival programmers prefaced Winter, Go Away! with Victor Kossakovsky’s The Other Day (RU, 1991), an observational short of an anonymous corpse lying in full view on the streets of the former Leningrad on the day it shed its name for Saint Petersburg. I assume that the juxtaposition was designed to contrast the apathy that Kossakovsky captured on black and white film with the digital camcorder frenzy of the later film, while also highlighting the nation’s ironic circling back of sorts to Soviet rule under Putin the former KGB officer. In the middle of Winter, Go Away!, we catch sight of Pussy Riot’s famous 51 seconds on the cathedral soleas. Here, the jumpy recording of the feminist punk protest artists is comprehended as one incident among a wider political reaction in Russia, whereas Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer zeroes in on the high profile trial and conviction of the group’s three arrested members that garnered international attention in the summer of 2012.

Northern Light (Nick Bentgen, US, 2013)

The sheer exigency regarding what life is like under Putin, was congruent with these two Russian films’ apparent intention to simply disseminate. But the same could not be felt about other films that follow vérité or Direct Cinema traditions. One is Northern Light (US, 2013), director Nick Bentgen’s ethnographic look at the families of two drivers in the I-500, an annual endurance snowmobile race in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. This film clearly wants to valorize the honest working-class lives of people wholly committed to pursuing their passions. It succeeds, much like Marshall Curry’s documentary about competitive go-karting, Racing Dreams (US, 2009), which screened here three years ago. It reinforces my belief that Midwesterners’ understated resolve come in no small part from having to withstand long winters, when the landscape’s beauty arises from being rendered blank by the snow and silent by the temperature. You don’t really talk much when it’s that cold, you just go about your business. Northern Light’s panoramas capture that vividly, somehow even tactilely conveying the texture of snow in Michigan’s upper peninsula. The aural close-ups of footsteps, heavy machinery, or just breathing, smartly evoke rural silence.

Nevertheless, in invoking and emulating Frederick Wiseman, Bentgen unintentionally but inevitably, arguably, assumes the elder’s point of view. With few exceptions – Public Housing (US, 1997) is one – Wiseman’s work illustrates how individuals are interpellated, if not controlled and overpowered by social institutions. Bentgen cited him as inspiration, but resisted the premise of an audience member’s question that Northern Light is exploitative. The viewer’s query is to be expected, however. The camera lingers unflinchingly on downcast eyes and stoic working-class faces, long past the point when quiet dignity breaks down into sadness and unfulfilled dreams. The director seemed to be genuinely surprised that the film can be seen to condescend, but consider the projected audience for such a film. It will in all likelihood resemble the highly educated, left-of-center crowd in Columbia, to whom key shots in the film carry inevitable significations. It was not made for the movie patrons in that corner of Michigan. Unlike Racing Dreams, Northern Light alerts you continually to its subjects’ social and class positions. One competitor’s wife works at Walmart, where wide-angled shots stretch out the store’s cavernous, antiseptic interior. Flushed with fluorescent lighting, and hushed with hardly a customer in sight, the images cannot avoid representing these people as victims. They also threaten to inflect the expansive wintry exteriors with melancholy. The briefest of glimpses then, at Fox News on a television, completes the picture of how people in blue states see their neighbors in red states.

Three years after it screened at True/False, a film that still raises issues related to observational documentary style is Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, US, 2010), the “embedded” feature about the troops stationed at a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. It returns to the conversation because Junger was in Columbia accompanying Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (Junger, US, 2013), his personal tribute to its eponymous subject, the British photojournalist who died from shrapnel wounds in 2011 covering the Libyan civil war. HBO’s commitment to this film – it is scheduled for an April 18 broadcast premiere – follows up on its stylish documentary series about war photographers, Witness (US, 2012). The episode, “Libya,” provides glimpses of Hetherington’s literally final moments in Misrata, through the perspective of Michael Christopher Brown, another photojournalist who was wounded in the same explosion. Junger’s hagiography presents Hetherington’s body of work as an expression of his colleague’s character and humanity, revealing a complex oeuvre far beyond his most recent pictures from the Middle-East.

Without these insights about Hetherington, we would have been left with a narrowly defined view. More than one of my reports over the last two years adopted a cynical position on Restrepo, criticizing its avowed apoliticism as jingoism in clever disguise, and for how it tacitly encourages its audience to indulge in macho excesses. Nothing it seems, from Junger and Hetherington’s own improbably angular features to Michael Mann’s involvement in producing Witness – could disrupt that hermeneutic. However in Which Way is the Front Line from Here?, the voice that Junger lends to Hetherington’s personal history and politics compels reconsideration, for behind the ostensibly non-political cameras in Restrepo were a pair of intensely reflective, literate, and socially conscious journalists. Abundant anecdotes in the new film vividly represent Hetherington’s fully formed worldview. For example, his description of outpost Restrepo as a “Man Eden” feeds his socio-political analysis of why young men can be drawn to war, and how some in power exploit that predilection. He thus deeply and continually recognized the conflict’s implications that, like the topic of Dirty Wars, the news media do not serve very responsibly either.

Junger stated that he and Hetherington “saw eye to eye” when it came to war: “There are times when war is stupid, and there are times when it is necessary.” He drafts a political position that is certainly not pacifist, but neither is it reactionary. He barely flinched at my critique of Restrepo from the left, and states simply that it is not his journalistic prerogative to participate in the type of advocacy that Rowley and Scahill take on in Dirty Wars. When I posited that the result of apolitical restraint in Restrepo can indeed be very political – more so, I would argue, than Dirty Wars – he shrugged and accepted it as a fair point.

Speaking in person at True/False, Junger made poignant the memory of Hetherington, whose presence at the festival has unfortunately only been apparitional. He was scheduled to speak when Restrepo screened in 2010, but could only converse on Skype. The following year, Janus Metz prompted many to compare Armadillo (DK, 2010) to the duo’s documentary, just weeks before the deadly mortar blast in Libya killed Hetherington and fellow journalist Chris Hondross. Which Way is the Front Line from Here? draws our thoughts to his tragically premature passing and by extension to the conflicts that presently blot our world. But through his continued absence, that violence remained sadly distant, if not prevented from confronting us corporeally.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, DK/NO/UK, 2012)

The Act of Killing (DK/NO/UK, 2012) is an astounding attempt to close such a gap. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the brutality of Indonesia’s post-1965 history, during which Suharto ascended to the presidency and began a ruthless campaign to suppress dissent. Abetted by Western powers at the height of the Cold War eager to support his anti-communist purges, the Indonesian military subcontracted these pogroms to militias and local gangsters, who carried out untold killings of communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese. After making insufficient headway with an initial project to interview the victims of those atrocities, Oppenheimer discovered the more astonishing fact that the perpetrators had not only never faced punishment but were in fact living side by side with the descendants of those they murdered. As a film about the lives and memories of those who perpetrate and suffer atrocities, its premise is simple, and not that unique this year as it were. Sleepless Nights (Eliane Raheb, LB/AE/QA/PS/FR, 2012) recites a similar story from the Lebanese Civil War. However, where Raheb adopts personal confrontation as her method to excavate emotions of anguish, guilt, and forgiveness, Oppenheimer’s choice to offer the Indonesian killers a chance to re-stage their crimes in a film commences an exhumation more cutting than one would imagine. The move allowed his subjects a distance that uncovers the past in far ghastlier fashion.

Comparing Sleepless Nights to Michael Moore or Mike Wallace is certainly not to diminish one set of crimes or one victims’ suffering in relation to another, but The Act of Killing breaks newer ground for documentary cinema. Even setting aside for the moment the film’s ready meditations on self-reflexivity and the politics of aesthetics – the Indonesian murderers reenact the past through Hollywood gangster, western, and musical genres – it remains exceedingly emotional and spiritually vivid. In fact, the film manages that precisely because it offers neither revelation nor denouement. A victim’s relative breaks down on one occasion, but The Act of Killing is most transfixing when the camera finds a perturbing absence of affect where we would expect it to overflow. One of the killers, back into local gangsterism, teases a shopkeeper in the middle of a nonchalant extortion. Another, death squad leader Anwar Congo, earnestly demonstrates how he devised the bloodless and efficient method of strangulation by wire. Oppenheimer keeps the specter of violence unnervingly close. With unambiguous symbolism, we witness Anwar perform dental surgery on himself. Later, when his conscience permeates his consciousness, Anwar climactically tries to purge his sins but the dry heaving delivers scant catharsis.[4]

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, US, 2012)

Violence of a different sort constitutes Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, US, 2012), the anticipated latest from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Straightforwardly, it is an avant-garde portrait of life aboard a commercial fishing trawler off the New England coast. But to accept Leviathan as just a movie about fishing, is akin to assuming that ethnography is the only discipline served by what comes out of the SEL. It is not. Visual anthropologists could also see the film as an extensive document of how contemporary audiences experience cinema. Leviathan’s aestheticization of movement, the way it stimulates your eyes to dart across the screen, in addition to the GoPro camera’s freedom and mobility, renders the film’s first half-hour as both a kaleidoscopic trigger and abstraction of virtually every action and horror flick from the last 20-30 years. The parodic impulse expressed by the Gothic font of its titles and credits preclude any interpretation that avoids intertextuality. Leviathan is thus as much about fishing boats as the older Sweetgrass (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash US, 2009) is merely about herding sheep. (Projected on 35mm at True/False, Sweetgrass’s evocation of the western’s iconography was even more vivid.) Leviathan is epic, seizing you completely until its final zippy dots of light fall silently away.

The Act of Killing and Leviathan exemplify the grand visions and weighty ambitions that were fairly common this year. Nevertheless, the personal stories that True/False finds irresistible made their presence count. Among these, Sarah Polley’s biographical family portrait, Stories We Tell (CA, 2012) stood out as a welcome, accomplished, and exciting piece of a growing filmography. Coincidentally, Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, US, 2013) was another bittersweet family-oriented crowd pleaser driven purely by the personalities of its artist couple, the New York-based Japanese duo of Dadaist Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. On the festival’s final evening, the husband performed one of the “boxing paintings” for which he is most famous. By offering this opportunity to get up close and personal, True/False could hardly have ended its 10th edition with a more fitting reminder of its intimacy, accessibility, and whimsy.

Ushio Shinohara from Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, US, 2013), performing a Boxing Painting. March 3, 2013, Columbia, Missouri.


[1] Al Tompkins, Reuters, AP photojournalists describe staging of Obama photo, Poynter (May 4, 2011). Accessed March 19, 2013.

[2] “Inside the Situation Room,” Rock Center with Brian Williams (NBC, US, 2011–), Airdate: May 2, 2012; Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (John Stockwell, US, 2012); Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, US, 2012).

[4] Written after viewing the longer director’s cut of the film, and with insights provided by Oppenheimer in his interview with Framework editor Drake Stutesman, available at Joshua Oppenheimer Interview.


Gerald Sim is assistant professor of film studies at Florida Atlantic University. His essays appear in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, Projections, and other journals. A forthcoming essay in Discourse examines Edward Said’s influence on film studies.