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Representing justice in The Act of Killing and The Unknown Known.

Most of us think of the invitation to act in a film as a desirable, even enviable, opportunity. But what if the invitation is not to act in a film but to be in a film, to be yourself in a film? What will others think of you; how will they judge you? What aspects of your life may stand revealed that you had not anticipated?... [These questions] place a different burden of responsibility on filmmakers who set out to represent others rather than to portray characters of their own invention.--BILL NICHOLS

The three documentary films I will discuss are The Unknown Known (2013), (1) The Act of Killing (2012), (2) and Sophie Fiennes' documentary on the thought of Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012), (3) the latter shot in the mode Bill Nichols would call "expository," which "directly addresses issues in the historical world," and is "overly didactic." (4) The first two are shot in the mode Nichols would call "participatory," emphasizing the use of "archival footage'" and documenting the filmmaker's direct intervention and interaction with his/her subjects. As Nichols alludes to, these "participatory" documentaries raise all sorts of vexing questions about ethics and justice, forcing us to ask, if we are willing, whether or not the camera has any business seeking out justice, or whether or not it is ethical for us, as viewers, to expect any kind of justice or redress through the passive consumption of these types of documentary films.

Zizek's discussion of the Lacanian "big Other" will serve a purpose here--particularly its rendering on film via Sophie Fiennes. This filmic discussion of the big Other, in terms of content, certainly lambastes our continual dependence on societal "big Others" (i.e. our reliance on such "Others" to point the way toward something like justice, for example). However, at the same time, the filmic representation of this message serves to underscore a dangerous and lingering ideological big Other: the (Western) belief in supra-historical interstitial imaginative spaces from within which any notion of justice could be derived--a belief rendered aesthetically most effectively, hence most deceptively, via (documentary) film. Exposure of the camera's pernicious fixation on this big Other of "justice"--as achievable via the impersonal capture of so-called "objective" interstitial spaces--is what I seek to do here.

In a very curious essay called "The Future of Possibility," Stanley Cavell addresses squarely the prospect of possibilities lost, citing the following passage: "Everything is worn out: revolutions, profits, miracles. The planet itself shows signs of fatigue and breakdown, from the ozone layer to the temperature of the oceans." (6) These words, seemingly benign, immediately restrict the type of activity human beings ought to carry out--that is, if possibilities surrounding revolutions, profits, and miracles are exhausted at the outset. What this paper seeks to address is if, by extension, the idea of justice, or redress, is also exhausted. Here is where I think Cavell, and even Zizek, see a particular role for philosophy, though we have to ask if, in their conception of things, something like justice and transcendence are mutually exclusive.

Cavell appeals to the American transcendentalists (Emerson most famously) to, if not declare, then reframe, the goal of philosophy as one of "integration"--that of the pessimisms of the old world and its failed revolutionary politics (Europe) to which must be added the philosophy of a "new yet unapproachable America." In making the case for possibility, then, Cavell quotes from "Experience": "In liberated moments we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible." (8) Cavell goes on to add his commentary:

   This demand for integration sounds like a beginning
   of that American optimism or Emersonian
   cheerfulness to which an old European sophistication
   knows so well how to condescend. But it
   has never been sure, even where I come from, that
   Emerson's tone of encouragement is tolerable to
   listen to for very long... What occurs to us in liberated
   moments is that we know. That "we" claims
   to speak for us, for me and for you, as philosophy
   in its unavoidable arrogance always claims to do;
   and moreover claims to speak of what we do not
   know we know, hence of some thought that we keep
   rejecting; hence claims to know us better than we
   know ourselves. (9)

That philosophy's task is to unearth something we do not know we know invites (and please bear with me) speculation on Errol Morris's documentary film, The Unknown Known, a documentary confessional dealing not with epistemological philosophical problems of knowledge or exhaustion, but with, perhaps, the hubris of those like Donald Rumsfeld who do claim to speak for us or on our behalf. So my question in citing Cavell's text against Morris's is simply to ask if we can begin to think of or take Cavell's or philosophy's epistemological concerns over what we do not know we know as linked to, or made manifest in, some political "real world" arena (rather than inhabiting, exclusively, the realm of thought, philosophical or otherwise) via Donald Rumsfeld's political speculations--particularly when the language employed by both Cavell and Rumsfeld, at the very least, sounds the same. But do they mean the same?

Errol Morris: Let me put up this next memo.

Donald Rumsfeld: You want me to read this?

Errol Morris: Yes please.

Donald Rumsfeld: February 4th. 2004. Subject. What you know. There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know, that it turns out, you did not.

The date alone brings us back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, carried out, of course, on the erroneous pretext of confiscating weapons of mass destruction. So Rumsfeld clearly does not have in mind what any philosopher has in mind. When he says "unknown known," he means something like a mea culpa, as though the "unknown" portion of the phrase cancels out what was once, indeed, "known." But the philosophers are talking about something diametrically opposed to this: they mean, things that you think you didn't know, it turns out, you did.

There is indeed some overlap between what both Zizek and Cavell want of philosophy. Here is Zizek commenting directly on Donald Rumsfeld's amateur philosophizing. Note that Zizek is here responding to Rumsfeld's initial statements made to the White House Press Gallery in 2002: "There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are also unknown unknowns."10 No mention of the fourth term here, i.e. the unknown knowns, upon which philosophy builds its house:

   What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the critical
   fourth term: the "unknown knowns," things that
   we don't know that we know--which is precisely
   the Freudian unconscious ... the disavowed
   beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we
   pretend not to know about, although they form
   the background of our public values. To unearth
   these "unknown knowns" is the task of an intellectual.
   This is why Rumsfeld is not a philosopher:
   the goal of philosophical reflection is precisely to
   discern the "unknown knowns" of our existence.
   ... [W]hat is the Kantian transcendental a priori
   if not the network of such "unknown knowns"
   the horizon of meaning of which we are unaware,
   but which is always-already here, structuring our
   approach to reality? (11)

In making his case for the unknown known, Zizek is saying that the role of philosophy is to betray, or make us realize, what we do not know that we know. In the cinematic adaptation of his thinking, Sophie Fiennes traces his line of thought more intimately to our genealogical uncovering and relationship to some "big Other." Zizek's reading of Lacan has it that the Christian sleight of hand achieved after Christ's death was its replacement of Old Testament fear and trembling with Christian love.

   The contrast between Judaism and Christianity is
   the contrast between anxiety and love. The idea is
   that the Jewish God is the God of the abyss of the
   Other's desire. Terrible things happen. God is in
   charge, but we do not know what the big Other,
   God, wants from us.... Judaism persists in this
   anxiety, like God remains this enigmatic, terrifying
   Other. And then, Christianity resolves the tension
   through love. By sacrificing his son, God demonstrates
   that he loves us. So it's a kind of an imaginary,
   sentimental, even, resolution of a situation of
   radical anxiety. (12)

However long it has been the case that God is dead, what philosophy is supposed to do is to show us, even in our post-Christian and secular order, how we are still commanded, ideologically, by remnants of this "big Other." Continuing on, Zizek adds the following:

   If this were to be the case, then Christianity would
   have been a kind of ideological reversal or pacification
   of the deep much more shattering Jewish
   insight. But I think one can read the Christian
   gesture in a much more radical way.... What dies
   on the cross is precisely this guarantee of the big
   Other.... The message of Christ is, "I'm dying,
   but my death itself is good news. It means you
   are alone, left to your freedom ... This is why I
   claim that the only way really to be an atheist is
   to go through Christianity. Christianity is much
   more atheist than the usual atheism, which can
   claim there is no God and so on. But nonetheless
   it retains a certain trust into the big Other. The big
   Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or
   whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to
   a position within a harmonious whole of evolution,
   whatever. But the difficult thing to accept is, again,
   that there is no big Other, no point of reference
   which guarantees meaning. (13)

Philosophy is charged with the task of helping us see past our current and more pernicious "big Others"--modern day equivalents being "democracy and freedom," (14) "human rights," (15) "evolution," or "natural necessity"--those abstract ideas the meaninglessness of which we do not know that we know. We replaced the terror at the hands of the "big Other" by turning said "big Other" into love, and have since turned that love not into a love of God, but to a love of other things--say a love of freedom, or justice.

But in this scenario, unlike in Cavell's, what we don't know that we know is that justice is a dirty word and that its pursuit is destined to manifest itself as another outpost of old oppressions. This brings us to the feelings of exhaustion highlighted earlier. By pursuing justice, are we not simply trying, once again, to deny that which we know--striving, in a sense, to not know what we indubitably know--that the pursuit of justice is merely the pursuit of one more dogmatic big Other?

   [P]hilosophy emerges in the interstices between
   different communities, in the fragile space of
   exchange and circulation between them, a space
   which lacks any positive identity ... This is
   what Kant, in a famous passage of his "What is
   Enlightenment?", means by "public" as opposed to
   "private": "private" is not the individual as opposed
   to ones communal ties, but the very communal-institutional
   order of one's particular identification,
   while "public" is the transnational universality of
   the exercise of one's Reason. The paradox is thus
   that one participates in the universal dimension
   of the "public" sphere precisely as a singular individual
   extracted from or even opposed to one's
   substantial communal identification--one is truly
   universal only as radically singular, in the interstices
   of communal identities. (16)

In short, Zizek has philosophy exposing our limited vantage point within "private" communal orders to instead reveal that the truth of reason occurs in the interstices between communal identities. The impetus is to push us past our local obsessions, each organized around some cultural "big Other" that is, in fact, not universal. The task of modern day philosophy is to expose the current big Other manifestations around which we order our experience of everyday reality. Going back to Rumsfeld, Zizek concludes:

   Today, all the main terms we use to designate the
   present conflict--"war on terror," "democracy and
   freedom," "human rights" etc. etc.--are false terms,
   mystifying our perception of the situation instead
   of allowing us to think it. In this precise sense, our
   "freedoms" themselves serve to mask and sustain
   our deeper unfreedom--this is what philosophy
   should make us see. (17)

These are the unknown knowns: we don't know that we know that these (local) phrases are ultimately meaningless. So what does this say about the pursuit of justice in particular? That it can be achieved only in some radically singular "public" realm of reason? But surely we perceive injustice at the local level--not between communities, but precisely within them. But surely, also, we can see the danger behind attaching ourselves too dogmatically to these (local) big Others, and surely we can see (or are meant to see) that this is some sort of aphasic disturbance suffered acutely by Donald Rumsfeld--in his "obsession" with Iraq, guised no doubt under the seemingly universal rubric of "freedom and democracy," concepts we should all supposedly cherish and work to bring about.

Errol Morris: Why the obsession with Iraq, and Saddam?

Donald Rumsfeld: Well you love that word obsession. I can see the glow in your face when you say it.

Errol Morris: Well I'm an obsessive person!

Donald Rumsfeld: Are you? I'm not. I'm cool and measured.... The reason I was concerned about Iraq is [be] cause four star generals would come to me and say, "Mr. Secretary, we have a problem. Our orders are to fly over the northern part of Iraq and the southern part of Iraq, on a daily basis, with the Brits, and we are getting shot at. At some moment, could be tomorrow, could be next month, could be next year, one of our planes is going to be shot down and our pilots, and crews, are going to be killed. The question will be, 'What in the world were we flying those flights for? What was the cost benefit ratio? What was our country gaining?' So you sit down and you say, I think I'm going to see if I can get the President's attention.... And remind him that we've got a whole range of options. Not an obsession. A very measured, nuanced approach. I think. (18)

Is Rumsfeld fooling himself here? Errol Morris, in titling the film The Unknown Known, suggests as much, i.e. that Rumsfeld, in a way, knows he is committing himself to a fixation. Is the point of philosophy to get characters like him to step back and occupy the interstice? Does Rumsfeld do this?

Donald Rumsfeld: If you take those words, and try to connect them in each way that is possible, there was at least one more combination that wasn't there. The unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don't know you know.

Errol Morris: But the memo doesn't say that! It says we know less, not more, than we think we do. Donald Rumsfeld: Is that right, I reversed it? Put it up again, let me see ... Yah I think that memo is backwards ... I think you're probably, you know, chasing the wrong rabbit here. (19)

So Rumsfeld does stumble upon the phrase Zizek highlighted earlier. He clearly says, however fleetingly, not that he lacked knowledge, but that he had too much, too much to know what to do with.

However, even if he glimpses what he didn't know he knew, he quickly represses it, accusing Morris of "chasing the wrong rabbit." At this point, what are we supposed to feel? Sympathy because he manages to stumble upon his own fixation (his knee-jerk desire to believe in a lack, instead of plenitude, of knowledge)?--or exasperation that he ultimately denies this knowledge? But what is novel or surprising about that? We are fools, that is, to expect any kind of acknowledgement at this juncture, or at any juncture involving someone like Donald Rumsfeld. I mean, it is hopeless to expect justice to emanate from his soul. So why indeed are we watching? What has Morris left breached?

Let's now read Rumsfeld's act of acknowledgment and subsequent repression, against the seemingly non-repressive attitude taken by the protagonists of The Act of Killing, if, say, the following constitutes that film's epiphany:

Anwar Congo: Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed and then fear comes, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me and possessed me.

Joshua Oppenheimer: Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse because you know it's only a film. They knew they were being killed.

Anwar Congo: But I can feel it, Josh. Really I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to, Josh. (20)

One conclusion we might entertain is that both Anwar Congo and Donald Rumsfeld were acting within localized communities, pursuing "justice" in equally demented ways and that by virtue of spotlighting each, both Morris and Oppenheimer have reminded us that whatever we take justice to be, it occurs, indeed, in the interstices between narrow-minded ideologies, just as Zizek intimated. We may feel acts of injustice at a communal, subjective level, but we certainly have no business pursuing it on such levels; indeed, better here to be fixated on "the fragile space of exchange and circulation ... a space which lacks any positive identity." (21) In such extra communal headspace is our only hope, say philosophical hope, of achieving justice. Justice, so conceived, is less a real world correlate than a revelatory transcendence of real world local antagonisms.

But what sleight of hand have we perpetrated here? Is justice something human beings have no business pursuing in the actual world, but can only hope to tepidly theorize on (i.e. its eventual manifestation someday in the future)? Something of the latter sentiment is what I take films like The Unknown Known and The Act of Killing to be fixated upon. It is what, in short, I take certain documentary confessionals to be upholding--a blind faith to the idea that justice is removed from localized human concerns, to be achieved only in supra-national historical spaces to which only the camera has objective access--a filmmaker's (and a film watcher's) very own pernicious big Other.

For instance, does Zizek believe that justice is achievable by debunking our ideologies, or is he implying that any real-world local conception of justice is an ideology that necessarily requires debunking? Aren't Rumsfeld, Congo, and us as viewers all hoping for the manifestation of the same thing--precisely some vision of justice? We have different localized conceptions of how justice is to be achieved (invading Iraq, killing Communists, watching confessional documentaries), but surely we all crave the same thing.

Rather than getting too fixated on Zizek, let us see how Cavell addresses the question. In the paper noted earlier, he is explicitly talking about "possibilities," the "future" of them, and suggests, rather emphatically, that it is the job of philosophy to ensure that our present sensibilities remain open to future possibilities when it seems that we have exhausted the realm of the possible in human affairs. Drawing upon his usual suspects, Cavell reminds us that

   Nietzsche, after Emerson, links the sense of human
   exhaustion with the sense of the unresponsiveness
   of the future to human will (how different is that
   from the sense of the unresponsiveness of God?).... Here
   we have to think of Emerson's description of
   the mass of men as in a state of secret melancholy;
   Thoreau will say "quiet desperation"; Nietzsche
   sometimes formulates the sense of exhaustion as
   "boredom"[.] ... So philosophy becomes a struggle
   against melancholy--or, to speak with due banality,
   against depression. (22)

Cavell is conceiving philosophy's role as "cheering" the populace, not necessarily to point to how or in what way it is imprisoned by its unknown knowns (a la Zizek), but to create a mood that induces its members to want to speak at all, in face, indeed, of Thoreau's otherwise all-consuming "quiet desperation." The appeal to Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Emerson, at first glance, suggests that Cavell sees the role of philosophy as tied up intimately with transcendence, overcoming the everyday hardships, oppressions, and humiliations by somehow willing oneself out of one's melancholy. This sounds very similar to the Christian sleight of hand noted earlier by Zizek, i.e. replacing one's terror with love (non-understanding with transcendence, essentially another version of non-understanding). So even Cavell's formulation of philosophy's task, via Nietzsche, Emerson, and Thoreau, turns out to be an outpost of old oppressions after all.

But after establishing his own transcendentalist ground, Cavell very startlingly equates the diminishment of melancholy with justice and not a transcendence of (desiring) it. Whereas Zizek says that philosophizing has always been about occupying the interstices between communities, Cavell highlights

   philosophy's ancient perception of the distance of
   the world from a reign of justice ... This distance,
   or discrepance, is the world's public business, now
   on a global stage. I hope nothing will stop it from
   becoming the principal business of the twenty-first
   century. But it is, on my view, while a task
   that philosophy must join in together with every
   serious political and economic and, I would say,
   therapeutic theory, not now philosophy's peculiar
   task ...

   Philosophy's peculiar task now--that which will
   not be taken up if philosophy does not take it up is,
   beyond or before that, to prepare us, one by one,
   for the business of justice, and to train itself for
   the task of preparation by confronting an obstacle,
   perhaps the modern obstacle, to that business. I
   mean a sense of the exhaustion of human possibility,
   following the exhaustion of divine possibility. (23)

What is so startling is that Cavell makes a case for transcendence and justice, whereas we are conditioned to believe that we pursue the transcendence of real world injustices that we cannot, for whatever reason, hope to address, or see redressed, in our lifetimes. Cavell wants us to move closer to justice, and Zizek would rather we take a step back. We have Zizek's insistence on the cool rationality of the interstice versus Cavell's insistence on moods. Cavell says that the discrepancy between our perception of injustice and the hope for the manifestation of justice is the "world's public business, now on a global stage." He is not making a case for the interstice; he is arguing for its reduction. But Zizek says that Kant's "public use of Reason" works precisely to "extract" the individual from one's communal ties; reason, that is, has no use for moods, which can only be expressed subjectively. "Possibility" lies either in the exhausted subjective search for localized visions of justice, the overcoming of melancholia, or in the "measured" reach for transnational objective reason. In the former conception of philosophy and its aims, the subjective articulation of justice is the only hope for philosophy at all; in the latter, "justice" could only be a dirty word, articulated as a "big Other" merely, requiring debunking. But how, indeed, is such continual debunking to affect the mood of the populace--I mean, how is such continual debunking liberating? If all we are destined to continually discover is that our conceptions of justice are merely tied to some "big Other," what have we committed to?

Moreover, Cavell does not say that it is the business of philosophy to address the discrepancy between the perception of injustice and the manifestation of justice, but, rather, to prepare the soul to want to address our seemingly endless inability to achieve justice in the first place, which requires not relegating such local concerns to amorphous and ambiguous spaces known as "interstices," the formulation and conception of which does more to douse any burning desire to reach for justice in the first place. Zizek's interstices, and even Kant's realm of ends, so conceived, is precisely the realm of exhaustion, of zero possibilities. The fixation (even "obsession") on such spaces is what is disturbing, and the camera, left to its own devices, routinely buttresses this fixation. What we do not know that we know in watching films like The Unknown Known and The Act of Killing is that we are committed to impersonal, and mythical, interstitial spaces made manifest by the camera specifically. We tell ourselves that justice indubitably manifests itself there rather than face the terrifying reality that we no longer know where, or care, to look.

Rumsfeld is fixated certainly. Morris asks Rumsfeld if he feels he shapes history or is shaped by it. Rumsfeld responds saying "neither," (24) asserting that to be shaped by history is (for him) to be a failure (at his given position, say). But he doubly recognizes that no individual can possibly hope to shape history. He is certainly expressing his own relationship to some big Other, trying both to implicate himself within history and extract himself from it simultaneously. Rumsfeld knows not where to look. Saddam is not a "local" fixation, but precisely an interstitial, rational, fixation. To Rumsfeld, the camera of all things ought to bring this to bear.

The true documentarian chases the unknown in order to prepare us for the business of justice, rather than assume--as this film, The Act of Killing, does--that simply by pointing a camera, we have done our duty and justice will reveal itself. For instance, what are we supposed to be surprised at? That the act of killing can be undertaken so easily, or that the act of killing can be re-presented so easily? Perhaps it is easy to be wary of this film, to cynicize it in a way because what else have those who reveal themselves and their shortcomings onscreen become but another commodity?--as though their cravenness for fame, to become commodifiable, so easily translates into some sort of documented tell-all because to speak of horrors is still to speak of something. And to have a voice in the cacophonous noise that is consumer culture, to be given the opportunity to be consumed, whatever the message, is the ultimate prize in the West.

But such a critique seems pertinent only in the West. (25) It has no place in Indonesia. So the humanity of Anwar's final breakdown before the camera cannot be acknowledged by the West, or, say, by Western sensibilities because Westerners have been trained to consume such drama as commodity. That is, we can only pity Anwar or hold him responsible, and both responses are grotesque. Where is my proof? My proof comes in the fact that it is inconceivable to imagine a Western war criminal like Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld enacting the carnage they committed. Now you will say that it is indeed so inconceivable because neither McNamara nor Rumsfeld actually faced their victims, never put the wire to their throats. But that doubly reinforces my point; not only is it inconceivable to imagine them on the field with those whom they have murdered (and why not? Because they didn't actually "murder," i.e. commit the "act of killing" that the brutes in this film clearly did), but it is doubly inconceivable, even if they had, that they would be naive or moronic enough to film themselves recreating the scenes of horror they had taken part in and expect to come off scott-free. I mean, the colossal stupidity not of the act itself, but the re-enactment. The naivete of Anwar Congo and Herman Koto in particular, the sheer honesty of their acts of killings, comes not in their idiotic imitation of American gangsters they so admired, but in their belief in the power

of the silver screen to depict legends (like Bogart, Humphrey, and Cagney), never undo them.

Which brings me back to the humanity of Anwar Congo's final breakdown, to which we are made privy. What are we supposed to feel here? That some sort of karma has indeed come full circle? That those who commit acts of killing, even those brazen enough to re-enact such acts, will necessarily be haunted by the grotesqueness of those acts? I remain unconvinced and find myself sceptical of what the documentarians are aiming at in the film's final twenty minutes. They seem cornered into making a morality play. Anwar is certainly not to be admired, nor pitied, for his humanity. But it is equally grotesque to hold him responsible. So from where does his humanity emanate?

It emanates only from his sincere and astonishingly stupid belief in the power of cinema to redeem, the type of naivete that propagandists in the West are well apprised of and willing to exploit--in their matchless and relentless quests to conquer the imagistic through staged photo-ops, scripted town halls and political speeches, all delivered on set and on queue--where everything from lighting, to backdrop, to tie colour is chosen beforehand as a means to manipulate and deceive openly and knowingly. We are so desensitized to the propagandistic elements of images (we in the "visually literate" West) that we cannot recognize that the humanity of Anwar's willingness to re-present his crimes comes via his complete candidness before the camera, the sort of candidness any Westerner knows better than to perform onscreen. The Act of Killing completes the colonization process. First, have brown hands do the killing; then consume their fixation and avoid our own, (26) which, arguably, is the same fixation: amorphous or interstitial conceptions of justice rendered fully on film (i.e. film as necessarily offering some "big Other" type of "interstitial" or "rational" guarantee). Oppenheimer's film achieves this avoidance. Why is Anwar Congo on trial before us? The film does not say, as if its business is precisely not to say.

The Act of Killing is averse to documenting a stand, as though justice requires such aversion lest justice become propaganda. But it is this faux-disinterested stance of justice that is propagandistic. The modus operandi of such documentary confessionals is simply to film the culprits and hope for the best. Like Anwar and Rumsfeld, we too believe the redemptive powers of the screen will somehow work its magic, will magically fill the empty interstice (with moral instruction to boot), with the added cowardice of not facing up to our own (Western) atrocities, all the while consuming others only too willing to do so in our stead. We are merely going through the moral motions first carried out long ago by Conrad--peering into, though unable to address or rectify, some grotesque heart of darkness. But unlike in Conrad, what is here on display is not our impotence or lack of seriousness in seeking any sort of redress, but, much more cynically, the moral perturbations of some pathetic colonized man acting at the behest of his white superiors, from the cinema and elsewhere. The truly cynical thing, indeed, is that the film poses, or acts as if, redress is actually something it is interested in--though in the end, we see it has nothing much to offer other than going through perfunctory moral protestations for the sake of reiterating the misguided notion that justice comes from some objective space that only a disinterested camera could hope to capture, thereby betraying its reliance on an unhealthy Western fixation on impersonal "interstices"--truly another dangerous ideological big Other. Put simply: this film and others like it reinforce not the diminishment of injustice and the discovery of redress, but their further deferral. At the end of his film Errol Morris asks Donald Rumsfeld, "Why are you talking to me?" to which Rumsfeld replies, "I'll be darned if I know." We should be asking ourselves the same question--namely, why are we watching? (27)


(1) The Unknown Known, directed by Errol Morris (History Films: 2013).

(2) The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (Piraya Film: 2013).

(3) The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, directed by Sophie Fiennes (BFI: 2012).

(4) Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001), 138.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Cited in Stanley Cavell, "The Future of Possibility," in Philosophical Romanticism, ed. Nikolas Kompridis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 21.

(7) Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989).

(8) My emphasis; Emerson qtd. in Cavell, "Future," 22.

(9) My emphasis; Cavell, "Future," 22.

(10) The full quotation by Rumsfeld: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns--the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones." U.S. Department of Defense News Transcript, February 12, 2002. < transcripts/transcript.aspx? transcriptid=2636>

(11) His emphasis; Slavoj Zizek, "Philosophy, the "Unknown Knowns," and the Public Use of Reason," Topoi 25 (2006): 137.

(12) Quotation begins at approximately sixty-fourth minute of Pervert.

(13) Quotations here begin at approximately the sixty-fifth minute of Pervert.

(14) Zizek, "Philosophy," 142.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid., 140, 141.

(17) Ibid., 142.

(18) Quotations here begin at approximately the fifth minute of the film, Unknown.

(19) Quotations here begin at approximately the ninety-third minute of the film, Unknown.

(20) Quotations here begin at approximately the ninety-fourth minute of the film, Killing.

(21) Zizek, "Philosophy," 140.

(22) Cavell, "Future," 27.

(23) Ibid., 26-27.

(24) At approximately the ninety-second minute of the film, Unknown.

(25) Several films which come to mind immediately include Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998), Beyond the Mat (2000), Tyson (2008), and The Armstrong Lie (2013), all of which showcase the downfall of once prominent elite professional athletes. We can no longer consume their success; try now to consume their failure.

(26) A critique of Clifford Geertz's "thick-description ethnography" is pertinent here. The methodology Geertz promotes is to extrapolate from certain localized customs far-ranging anthropological cultural truths. The problem is that readings of local examples are often too hastily perceived as cultural universals. Geertz, for instance, reads Balinese cockfights as providing Indonesians with a "vocabulary of sentiment [that includes]--the thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph." Yet as Vincent P. Pecora points out, nowhere in Geertz's topical analysis of Indonesian society does he discuss either the "American involvement [in the coup] nor Indonesia's wholesale swing to a pro-Western orientation." Neither, for that matter, does The Act of Killing. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 28, 449; and Vincent P. Pecora, "The Limits of Local Knowledge," in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), 258.

(27) A question I have left breached is how documentaries which Nichols would classify as "expository" address injustice. How effective, that is, is Sophie Fiennes's film on the thought of Zizek in addressing injustice? Because it lectures, rather than documents, one is not fooled into objectivity; one knows, clearly, one is dealing with a subjectivity, i.e. Zizek's. The test of this film is whether it manages to capture the gist of Zizek's thought successfully. I believe it does. Though it too defers questions of justice, making it worthy of the same critique I am levelling at the other two films, it presupposes and somewhat prescribes struggle. Justice is not necessarily nigh. Simply by watching the film, we may, indeed, be no closer to justice. On the other hand, in films like The Unknown Known and The Act of Killing, there is no struggle. We have done our duty in the watching alone.
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Author:Khan, Amir
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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