A reassessment of The Act of Killing – or to write about what we don’t know

Jagal - The Act of Killing

Jagal, The Act of Killing in Bahasa Indonesia

On 30 September, Joshua Oppenheimer released his documentary The Act of Killing for free unlimited download in Indonesia, the country where 48 years ago the mass killing of communists and their sympathisers that his film deals with took place. It is  a bold stroke – the film, titled Jagal in Indonesian, had not been released in theatres in the country but it had been widely available at smaller venues and for group screenings. By all accounts the vivid and lurid description of how probably some 500,000 people or more were killed by the army, nationalist and Islamic militias and thugs has already had a momentous impact in Indonesia, where for decades state ideology erased these events from official history and demonised anything even remotely left-wing. The country still bans all things communist. Under the military-dominated regime headed by general Suharto that lasted until 1998, each year television showed the same propaganda movie on the alleged communist coup attempt and the kidnapping, torture and murder of six generals on 1 October 1965 that sparked the mass killings. Students across the country also had to attend screenings of the movie. “I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary,” one former student told me recently. Even after Suharto and his coterie lost power in 1998, there was no active, or effective, re-examination of the past.

 “I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary”

That is where The Act of Killing comes in. The film’s Holywoodised style, twisted narrative and obsession with sickening detail are what makes it compelling to a larger Indonesian audience, I was told on a recent trip to the country. Exactly the qualities that made me wary about what is after all a serious documentary about a horrendous, nearly forgotten crime are what make it succeed where more sober treatments have failed. When I earlier posted about The Act of Killing , I saw only one side of the story, what was in front of me, and other than many people who also saw the movie I was disturbed by the balance of its choices. I made the mistake of assuming that the main target for the movie was a Western audience while the real impact will be felt in Indonesia itself, of course. Also, I had no idea to what degree the old New Order, initiated by Suharto during his purge of the communists, still exerts a hold over the country, despite democratisation since the 1998 Reformasi.

A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country by population in the world, is a fascinating place with huge potential but seems to be held back by corruption and political paralysis that have their roots in the past. I cannot claim to know it after spending several weeks there and talking to many well-informed people but I understand a tiny bit more than before I went. Which brings me to the point I raise in the sub-heading: What can we write about that which we don’t know very much about? I’m not phrasing this as an absolute: Should we write at all about what we don’t know intimately? Because a negative answer would mean the total dismissal of the majority of what appears on social media and would even invalidate much of ‘traditional’ journalism. Clearly writers are not all-knowing, even if they are experts in their fields. We all have to fill in the blanks to a certain degree and how intelligently we do that may often be more important than the extent of our knowledge, assuming that we possess some basic information on our subjects. A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge. I find it patronising and impractical to pack stories with lists of caveats and mostly just assume that I’m writing for a relatively sophisticated audience that realises that I give a picture to the best of my abilities. But there are occasions where you fuck up or where you change your mind after finding out more. I guess my formula to deal with that is: Try very hard to avoid it but don’t be paralysed by it.

The banality of motivation

I finally went to see, Infidel, Tim Hetherington’s posthumous solo show at Foam Amsterdam and it left me in a heavy mood. Even accepting that the show offers only a small glimpse of his work as a photographer and cineast, its quite relentless focus on war is a chilling indication of the life he made for himself and how he chose to frame his own experience. It is not a choice I’d ever be comfortable with. I count myself lucky that besides covering the shooting and explosions I had an alternate existence reporting lighter fare such as the plastic surgery craze in Beirut or drunken gay parties in the Saudi desert or even the more staid political and business stories. In Diary, the very personal video account of his work, just a few minutes of syrupy footage are dedicated to what might count as the good things in life. “This is as good as it gets” a voice (Hetherington’s?) declaims over idyllic images of a blond girl playing in the green grass against the backdrop of a forest, “This is England, early autumn. Look at it”. And back to the war it is.

I noticed from the comments on my previous piece on Hetherington that many people wonder why war photographers do what they do, and keep doing it. I have no answer and maybe there is no single answer to that question. Questions of motivation tend to lead to circular arguments: I did it because I thought I had to/it would be good for me/it would be good for others/I wanted to see it/understand it etc. Yes, but why?

Which leads me to what I had intended to write about originally in this post, Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. Last week, while I was sick with a stomach bug, feverish and weak, flitting in and out of semi-lucidity and the bathroom, I finished re-reading her account of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Probably not the best way to ingest a treatise on the Holocaust, a painful exercise at the best of times, but I had been at it since I saw the eponymous Margaretha von Trotta movie in which Barbara Sukowa plays the Jewish German/American political thinker as she attends the Nazi’s war crimes trial and faces the reaction to her controversial book on it afterwards:


I thought the movie was OK, not great, and it addressed some interesting moral questions. Main among them was the price we may have to pay when we stick to our convictions and confront people with what we might regard as uncomfortable truths. But after re-reading Arendt, I think that the movie missed the point. It portrays Arendt as overwhelmingly driven by a a quest for logic and rationality, despite some heavy-handed attempts to balance that with a couple of rather mushy scenes from her private life supposedly meant to show her soft side. Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s account and analysis of the trial, I was struck by how she is clearly struggling with her own feelings. It can be seen in the overly zealous attempt to create distance between herself and the Jewish participants in the trial, the prosecutor, the judges, the witnesses etc.  and conversely her strained apparent attempt to be fair to Eichmann, by her small digressions and detours, and by the tone, which is didactic but strangely equivocal at times. It may be reading too much of her biography into her work but it’s hard to see how she could have written about it free of emotion; after all it dealt with genocide, the extermination of her own community, the perversion of her actual and philosophical birthplace and at a different level with her conflicted feelings toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. In the context of her time it made sense for her to present the account as a strictly neutral, rational analysis of the proceedings. Nowadays we’d personalise such a story in a flash, appropriating it as our own if there’s even the slightest connection, to better stake a claim to it.

Arendt of course had good reason to present her account as unemotionally and rationally as possible; it was the continuation of an immense and important professional body of work on totalitarianism and violence. Yet, knowing that as a young woman her dissertation was on the subject of love in the thought of St Augustine, her later turn toward researching anti-semitism, totalitarianism and violence is very likely to have been motivated exactly by the kind of personal interest that she sought to ban from her Eichmann analysis. I’m not often inclined to advocate partisanship in reporting – Eichmann in Jerusalem was also a kind of reportage, for The New Yorker – but it’s probably preferable to an unsuccessful attempt to cover up one’s feelings toward a highly emotional subject, such as the Holocaust. Then again, we owe Arendt a huge debt for her insight that great crimes can be committed in a very humdrum way, that going along with injustice is often the easy and even seemingly logical option. Whatever the motivation behind her work, it is important and we are lucky to have it. Maybe we should look at the work of war photographers such as Tim Hetherington in the same way. Motivation is neither here nor there and is often unimportant compared to the outcome. On the other hand we often cannot help but let  the writer’s/artist’s motivation affect our understanding of the work. It remains a conundrum.

(Probably not) the final word on the war correspondent’s dilemma

Here’s a very considered, courageous and deep-digging inquiry into the question of why war correspondents do what they do.

PODCAST – Diary of a bad year: A war correspondent’s dilemma – NPR’s Kelly McEvers

And more at transom.org It is infinitely more complex, sophisticated and inquisitive than my short blog post on the subject. I wonder if there’s anything left to say. Then again, everybody has a slightly different story.

An evening on Tim Hetherington – and all I took were some lousy phone pics

More musings on conflict reporting – my conflicted view

Stephen Mayes, director of the estate of Tim Hetherington, talks at de Balie in Amsterdam
Stephen Mayes, director of the estate of Tim Hetherington, talks at de Balie in Amsterdam

Tim Hetherington was a wonderful photographer and documentary maker who operated mostly in conflict zones, which on 20 April 2011 got him killed in Misrata, Libya. The Arab Spring, so hopefully named, has been particularly deadly and otherwise damaging for those covering it. An exhibition of Tim’s work arrived in Amsterdam in July and a new film on his life, a tribute directed by Sebastian Junger with whom he made the 2010 award-winning documentary Restrepo on life at an American outpost in Afghanistan, also had its Dutch premiere…


Various friends of Tim’s attended the launch and gave presentations that I won’t go into; I want to talk about me and Tim. I never met Tim, never heard of him before Restrepo and only vaguely afterwards. But we had a few things in common, apart from rugged good looks (I wish). We both did journalism courses in the UK and we both ended up in war zones. I know it’s not much but it’s more than some. Yet when I listened to the presentations and as I watched the film, the gulf between our experiences seemed vast, making me question the way I engaged with some of the same topics that Tim came across. There was a charming bit in which he has to talk about what it is that he’s doing. He starts out with a rather worthy description, only to stop himself short and say “that’s bullshit”. More attempts follow before he gets it right, kind of. It feels like it’s meant to show the difficulty war reporters have in talking about their work without sounding pompous, full of pathos and bravado or, on the other hand, overly jaded. But it can also be seen as defanging any such qualms pre-emptively as in, ‘see, he knew how difficult it was to talk about it’. Yet he talked about it a lot, on camera and on the record…


It always makes me feel uncomfortable. I have not heard people talk about war reporting in public in a way that sits well with me, probably reflecting a puritan streak that urges me: do, don’t tell. I find it almost impossible to talk about my decade or so covering conflict in a way that does not somehow trivialise it, dramatise it or worse, instrumentalise it for my own greater glory. When I sometimes try to discuss it, as dispassionately and in as sparse and stripped-down terms as I find possible, it feels as if nobody listens. Poor me. It is as Tim also said: you need to communicate in order for people to be able to engage with the subject. But I feel utterly conflicted about people who continue to communicate such issues outside the context of immediate war reporting. In the film on his life, many also said of Tim that he was always engaged with his subjects, the people he came across, whom he kept treating as individuals, as human.

Stephen Mayes, James Brabazon and Max Houghton talking about Tim Hetherington at de Balie, Amsterdam
James Brabazon, James Brabazon and Max Houghton talking about Tim Hetherington at de Balie, Amsterdam

Expressing such engagement also makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe there’s a big difference between writers and photographers, also in the levels of danger encountered and in the way they process what they see, but I find the exhortation to keep in mind that the people you write about or photograph are also human, individuals with their own stories and not just characters in a larger plot, utterly redundant and preposterous. The cliché that war reporters only write about cannon fodder or people as numbers, is misleading and tiresome. Overwhelmingly, reporters who risk their lives, who insert themselves knowingly into dangerous situations, are very much aware of the excess of humanity around them. Human yes, always interesting? No. War and conflict tend to polarise people, resulting in a couple of standard narratives that many of those involved and engaged in conflict employ. It is a reporter’s job, maybe not a photographer’s, to puncture those shells and dig down to the real story if there is such a thing. Combat may temporarily heighten one’s senses but continual conflict flattens everything, including what distinguishes people. After a while, all stories become similar, whether it’s an American soldier’s or an Iraqi Jihadist’s. The logic of violence is often frighteningly similar and therefore also horribly clichéd. Yes, it is ritualistic and it has to do with male bonding but to me these themes never held the fascination they seemed to have had for Tim Hetherington. Perhaps that is at the root of much of my unease; I have always been a reluctant war reporter with a visceral distrust of people who sought out such situations willingly. Just maybe the life and work of Tim Hetherington will start me thinking differently about such things. But I’m a hard nut to crack.

I yet have to see Tim Hetherington’s show ‘Infidel’ at Foam Amsterdam and may post on this again afterwards…

Art, conflict and pretty pics – Nat Muller on Richard Mosse’s The Enclave

Poster for The Enclave, Irish Pavillion, 55th Venice Biennale
The poster for The Enclave at the 55th Venice Biennale. On the back Lac Vert Lullaby. A text at the bottom said that it was recorded by Ben Frost at Lac Vert, Congo, in 2012 for The Enclave.

“Artists do not per se have an accountability towards their audiences. If anything their accountability is to make interesting work”

Nat Muller, independent curator and critic with her share of experience  in conflict areas and former conflict areas such as the Middle East and the Balkans, shines her light on Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, shown in the Irish pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. She reacts to my doubts about a work that straddles the divide between art and photojournalism, and more directly to the criticism by Louise Williams, the Irish journalist with extensive experience in Congo. You can follow Nat and Louise on twitter: @nat_muller and @Loureports and Louise has a blog: travels with my microphone

All in the Assad Family

I Love Bashar in English, Arabic and Camel
I Love Bashar in English, Arabic and Camel

Come on, who doesn’t love Bashar? Well at least his Assad family paraphernalia. Sure, this is not government issue and he has eschewed the statues and huge portraits that his father, Hafez, so enjoyed. Syria’s ruling house has been somewhat middle of the road in its self aggrandisement when compared to some of its neighbours. Jordan’s Hashemites shouldn’t have to go for the farcical, full-bedouin dress or operetta-military outfit propaganda pics, being descendants of the prophet but they do anyway. And remember the giant stone busts of fellow Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein at his Baghdad palace? Still, the Assads have been cultivating their image as a ruling family for decades, as in this button from the 1990’s depicting Hafez with his son Basil, his intended heir who died in a car crash, and Bashar who had to be given legitimacy quickly.

Hafez, Basil and bashar, The Assad family's, hence Syria's, Holy Trinity
Hafez, Basil and bashar, The Assad family’s, hence Syria’s, Holy Trinity

The text at the bottom boldly declares ‘Suria al-Assad’ as if another push towards more complete identification of the family with the country and vice versa were necessary. But it’s a lovely tradition in the region to name your country after your family. The Saudis did it and Jordan is also the Hashemite Kingdom. Anyway, to understand the particular mess that Syria is in today, it helps to know a couple of things about the Assads, apart from the whole Alawite angle. Bashar was never intended to lead the country, his older, more dashing and martial brother Basil was the heir apparent. He took a ‘special interest’ in neighbouring Lebanon that extended to him dating a beautiful Lebanese girl – ironic detail: after he died, she married a Lebanese politician and newspaperman who was killed years later in what many belief was Syria’s campaign against its opponents in Lebanon.

The dashing Basil Assad - groomed for greatness, died in a car crash
The dashing Basil Assad – groomed for greatness, died in a car crash

Bashar, the gawky supposed medical doctor and ophthalmologist was roped in to rescue the family franchise, leading to the by now well-known list of blunders on his part, starting with a ruthless crackdown on even the mildest of dissidents following a very brief ‘spring’ when he took over in 2000, then the fiasco in Lebanon where his henchmen are widely suspected of being behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and culminating in the brutal actions against peaceful demonstrations in 2011 that led to the current civil war. While on the subject of blunders: Those awful Sunni Jihadi terrorists that he accuses of forming the bulk of the opposition, well they are to a large degree his own creation. Syria used radical Islam on many occasions against its enemies, including the well-documented sluicing of men and money to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the very same group that’s now causing so much trouble in his own ‘Suria al-Assad’. Blowback or what?

Obviously Bashar paraphernalia is so much less cool than Basil’s and Hafez’s. They are both buried in a mausoleum in Qardaha, the birthplace of the Assad clan that sports a large statue of the pater familias in the town centre. Bashar may end up in foreign soil, if things continue this way. I have more Hafez and possibly some Bashar stuff stored somewhere and will try post the gaudiest items if I ever dig them up.

Bosnia’s invisible Saudi

Saudi man cutout

Meet the invisible Saudi, he resides at the King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud cultural centre in Sarajevo, adjacent to the largest mosque on the Balkans, a gift from Saudi Arabia to the people of Bosnia after that country’s devastating war in the 1990’s. A prop used by the cultural centre during a book fair to get Bosnians better acquainted with Saudi society, the invisible Saudi and his equally invisible wife (but that is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia) could be a symbol for that country’s role in Bosnia. During the war, rumours were rife of Saudi funded foreign Jihadis joining the ranks of Bosnia’s besieged Muslim community in their fight with mainly the Orthodox Christian Serbs. Concern over these supposed Jihadis using Bosnia as a jumping board into Europe and the US kept cropping up periodically for more than a decade after the war and received new impetus after 9/11. But the story has since died a silent death. One local journalist and analyst in Sarajevo who wrote about it repeatedly, recently told me that it has become a non-issue. Steps that were taken to deal with it have proved adequate and the threat never panned out. With global concern over Jihadis in Syria reaching fever pitch, it may be a very small example of how worst-case scenarios are not always realistic.

Saudi Cutouts

Much more revealing about the present moment in the Middle East than the whole Jihadi question was an unprompted remark by the Saudi cultural representative in Sarajevo concerning Iran. Asked about Turkey’s unquestionable cultural influence in Bosnia, he said, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the same in Bosnia. Only some other countries are against us. Yes, Iran”. European Bosnia may not seem an obvious place for the raging sectarian tensions that plague the Middle East to surface but maybe the official had in mind the expulsion of four Iranian diplomats accused of spying that was rumoured to be taking place as he was speaking.

IMG_0164
The Saudi-built King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Balkan’s largest.

Many Bosniaks, the name for Bosnian Muslims, are not that charmed by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, which a group of youngsters having coffee on a Friday morning in the shade of the looming Saudi mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo lumped together as “the East”. Ignoring the call to Friday prayer, the law and business students at the café expressed their disapproval of “all that Wahhabi stuff, veils, religion in the street, that we never had before the war.” Yet they did not see a major Jihadist problem in Bosnia either. “We are European, not like those Muslims of the East.”

Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque
The invisible Saudi nipping out for prayer at the Ottoman era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosquein central Sarajevo

The Bosnians have plenty of their own problems to worry about without importing new ones from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The sectarian and political mess that persists almost two decade after the war is leaving them behind in the former Yugoslav republics’ drive to join the EU. The corruption, bloody mindedness and astonishing obtuseness of their political leaders has led to such high-farce crises as the babies born in bureaucratic limbo and a national museum closed for lack of a national narrative. Even though a virtual EU protectorate and boosted by Islamic and European goodwill and aid, Bosnia is an object lesson in how civil war and sectarian divisions can screw a place up for years to come.

Bosnia National Museum closed

Creative Commons License
Bosnia’s invisible Saudi by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Congo in Green (and Pink)

Congo-in-Pink-and-Green

Congo in Green and Pink is the way I intended the artwork for the interview With Louise Williams to come out but the animation did not work for that. So here it is, just to get the idea. The pink one is a pic of Richard Mosse’s photo and the green one is Louise’s.

Art, journalism and conflict – Louise Williams on Congo pictures

Interview with Louise Williams on Congo, conflict and the pictures of Richard Mosse

More on the pitfalls of art, journalism and conflict – A while ago I posted on Richard Mosse’s impressive work on Congo for the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennial, called The Enclave. The work is troubling in part because it situates itself so clearly in a war zone and uses that, to the extent that the texts at the show mentioned a new way of looking at photojournalism. My Irish friend and colleague Louise Williams frequently visits Congo for her work as a journalist and a trainer. And she is fed up with the one-dimensional perpetuation of this violent image of Congo and with people using it towards their own ends. Listen to the interview (10 minutes). The artwork is supposed to be animated, fluctuating between pink and green. I posted it separately. 

Creative Commons License
Louise Williams on Richard Mosse and Congo by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Act of Killing

From Congo to Indonesia, doubts about the depiction of conflict

Coincidence? I think not. The main character in The Act of Killing, the documentary movie that is being promoted in the above trailer, is called Anwar Congo, a notorious Indonesian warlord who massacred communists in the 1960’s. I saw this problematic film hot on the heels of viewing the art documentary/installation on militias in Congo at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. My question then as now was: Is it exploitative, does it glamourise conflict? For me, the jury is still out on The Enclave, Richard Mosse’s Congo project, although a Congo-going friend and colleague outspokenly thinks so. But I have no such doubts about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. I find it tilting the wrong way, not just because of the deeds of Anwar Congo but because of the filmmaker’s choices. As a journalist, I sympathise with the difficulty involved in bringing horrendous stories to the attention of a larger public. But in this case, I feel that a line has been crossed and that, very much in the spirit of this age, storytelling veers into self-aggrandisement (And yes, I realise the irony of making such an accusation on a blog, the ultimate engine of self-promotion). The numerous times that the killer, Congo, directly addresses the filmmaker by name, Joshua this, Josh that, is in itself revealing. I assume that it could have been easily edited out. After all, Joshua has seven years worth of material. The most problematic part of the movie is the ending when a money shot sequence of Congo retching in regret offers the kind of redemptive finish that would make even a Hollywood exec blush. Joshua tries to play it cool and inoculate himself against charges of pandering by pointing out to Congo that his victims felt a lot worse than he does re-enacting their suffering – this is after all just a film while they knew they were going to die. The regretful retching comes after that, though, and goes on for quite a while. Together with the ambivalence of the rest of the movie, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It feels cheap and empty. If Congo really feels bad, what are the consequences? Does he kill himself? Does he ask his victims for forgiveness? Does he give himself up to be tried for war crimes? And if not, why do we not see him leading his life as if nothing happened? I wonder if this as either a lazy choice by the director or an easy melodramatic device. As it stands, it gives the impression of at least partial redemption for a mass murderer and as such confirms my unease about the rest of the movie. But yes, like The Enclave, it’s beautifully shot.