The Act of Killing

Truth and “Truthiness” in the Documentary Film

Documentary films purport to be true- “nonfiction” – in ways that other films do not. In this assignment, your task is to determine precisely how the film we will be watching together (The Act of Killing, 2012) conveys a sense of truthfulness, rather than “truthiness,” to viewers. In order to answer this question, you must first determine what you believe to be the goal of the film: like everything else we have looked at this semester, documentaries are works of rhetoric, i.e. efforts to persuade someone about something, or to do something. In this case, I would like you to decide if you think the film accomplished its goal and, again, explain how it convinced you: what techniques did the film employ to achieve that goal? What worked, or didn’t work? Why? If it failed, what made it seem, well, merely “truthy” rather than true to you? What kind of truth is the film trying to convey? In Introduction to Documentary Bill Nichols says that documentaries are “not a reproduction of reality” but rather “a representation of the world we already occupy” (my emphasis).

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In order to answer these questions, pick at least two scenes to describe in some detail (in one or more paragraphs), and consider the various techniques the directors used in it: the people we see and the way they “act” or are portrayed, the location and format of interviews, including details such as the use of natural or artificial lighting, the time of day or night, use of sound, music, makeup, camera angles and framing, background scenes and anything else you deem relevant.

Your thesis should summarize your interpretation of the film (‘I believe the film tried to do x, or is trying to do z’) and some specific points (a, b, c) that either led it to succeed or fail (or succeed in some ways and fail in others).

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