For documentary filmmakers, preserving the organic beauty of their work while meeting audience demands for suspenseful, insightful story development can be difficult. This is a form that takes real, everyday lives as its starting point: It is not always the case that these stories follow a sort of typical literary line with character development, the introduction of a problem and tidy denouement. Yet while the audience knows that life does not conduct itself forward according to strict plot formulas, we still tend to expect a story when we see a documentary. One film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year proves just how illusory and ill-advised that sort of forced-plot work can be for the documentary filmmaker, while another shows how eschewing narrative plot is often a much more meaningful story-telling device.
The Story That Wasn’t: Blackfish
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish seems, on its surface, to be a relatively straightforward story about the marine park industry and the death of a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. The film explores the life of the orca Tilikum, who killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, and discusses the wider repercussions of putting such intelligent and massive wild animals on display in a carnival atmosphere. Throughout the film, we hear from former SeaWorld trainers, whale experts and former marine park industry insiders. Cowperthwaite has been lauded for creating a suspenseful, Jaws-like story about Tilikum and other captive killer whales.
Therein the problem lies. As an insightful gentleman remarked on our way out of the theatre, nothing about Blackfish was a revelation. Haven’t we known for years that wild animals faced with the stress and tragedy of extreme confinement sometimes lash out against those who work with them? Don’t we all know that orcas are quite intelligent and so massive that the repercussion of their expressions of frustration are immense? Cowperthwaite makes a story where there simply isn’t one. Yes, of course it’s tragic that Brancheau was killed while working at SeaWorld. Yes, of course it’s important that we reconsider whether we ought to support the marine park industry.
Unfortunately, Blackfish fails to create a meaningful dialogue about these issues. The front-to-end narrative structure of the piece makes it seem more like an extended commercial about protecting wild animals than an insightful story about why we, as humans, are so interested in the captivity of other species. Even the former SeaWorld trainers participate in this distancing from the essential question by participating in a sort of confessional that no doubt makes them feel better about their own former lives at Seaworld, but does little to help the viewer understand what’s really going on in these parks. The blatantly police procedural touches throughout the film further undermine it’s real potential, making it into just another simple cause-and-effect story.
The Hidden Narrative: The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has been lauded as one of the most frightening, meaningful documentaries to make the rounds this festival season. As I watched the film unfold, I was amazed by how well Oppenheimer dealt with the underbelly of human tragedy. Set in Indonesia, The Act of Killing follows paramilitary leaders and gangsters who carried out genocide against Communists and dissidents in the country during the 1960s as they make a film about what they did. As we watch the perpetrators reenact some of their most violent acts, we are treated to a unique view of how individuals we generally consider monsters perceive themselves.
The real beauty of The Act of Killing is that it isn’t a film that tries to trick us into believing that this kind of brutality is anything new. That humans are sometimes want to kill each other for no apparent reason isn’t news; anyone who has followed media coverage of crime or read a history book knows this. What the film manages to accomplish is a sophisticated study of how subject position influences our perception of the truth. As the perpetrators make their film, we are forced to see them as actual human beings. They have families, play with their kids and grandkids, they hang out with their friends, they raise chickens.
And they’ve somehow lived with themselves for the past five decades. This is the real question, after all: How can they live with themselves? As the film progresses, we begin to understand that perhaps it’s their very distance from the subject position of the Other (in this case, the communist or dissident) that allows them to carry on with relatively regular lives. Oppenheimer slowly immerses us in the perptrators’ experience of taking up that subject position, revealing powerful shifts in perception that come as a surprise to the audience.