“I´ll believe it when I see it.” This form of expressing doubt and a rather self-centred approach to reality speaks, as author Gunter Thomas would put it, to the cementing of witnessing as a cultural mode of communication, which implies a permanence of vision and visibility as its conditions. The idea that a fact of reality is allowed the quality of being true only as soon as someone has been witness to it calls for a reconsideration of the role of witnesses themselves, as well as of the conditions and consequences of seeing in a socially and politically relevant context. Seeing presupposes performance: asking what is already found and what is brought to an image at the level of spectatorship is essential, and just as important is to recognise existing conceptual differences between spectatorship and witnessing.
These rather theoretical delimitations fail to enter the daily experience of seeing and witnessing, which might pave the way to a naturalisation of a form of detachment that absolves the seeing agent from any moral responsibility towards what is being seen. This ends up creating a rift – between history and narratives of history, with individuals living one version of history but simultaneously narrating another, or even a direct opposite: democracies waging war on other countries in order to spread peace and democracy, technologies that promise freedom, but use intrusive surveillance as a daily tactic, nations that incite and arm violence only to turn their back to the victims.
Joshua Oppenheimer´s 2013 documentary, The Act of Killing, followed by The Look of Silence, explores the way these fantasies are turned into an artifice of survival and self-acceptance. The movie looks at a very specific historical event, the Indonesian genocide of 1965 – 1966, yet remains relevant and timeless in exploring the eternal relation between evil and the perpetrators of evil. The many examples of abuse from power, systemic violence, and government-led aggression we encounter today, within and without the democratic "Western" world, have arresting effects on social and cultural agency of many groups and individuals. These “natural” evils today do not go unreported, but they often go unchallenged. We´ve reached a point where the world needed a new name for these “fantasies:” – the phrase “alternative truths" just takes us closer to a normalisation of lie and fantasy as reaction to committing or being complicit to evil. Seeing is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of believing.
The fact that populism, racism, and xenophobia increasingly take over civic and democratic values, and reality often seems taken out of a dystopian scenario, points to the solidifying of spectatorship as an acceptable, legitimate, reaction to unfolding history. Oppenheimer´s films are pushing the boundaries of genre in how they propose a visualisation of the “banal evil,” and look into a sort of post-scriptum to these dystopian scenarios: historical evil, recorded, witnessed, recalled today by survivors is reframed and retold by perpetrators and participants, emphasising the ease to slide in a cinematic frame, where violence is broken down into survivable daily routines, and aggression becomes a springboard for imagination.
Oppenheimer´s investigation into the possibility of translating violence using a visual language of spectacle and performance is essential to the understanding of our own slow sliding into absurdity, inhumanity, and dystopia today.
Words: Elena Stanciu