Interview with Tim Hjersted of Films For Action

(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)

As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is the second of two interviews I’ve published (the other being last week’s with Franklin Lopezof subMedia.tv), with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.

Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and head of operations (note the lower case, not an official title) of political video site Films For Action. He and his colleagues have been collating and curating political films, images and articles for the last eight years, and at last count they had 400,000 followers on Facebook.

Tim kindly took time to answer my questions, and gave us an insight into his beliefs about fair compensation for activists, the work that goes into running a digital venture like this, ending with a lovely quote from Derrick Jensen about integrity and social media. (What more can you ask for from a concluding sentence?)

(FUN FACT: All of us in the previous paragraph are somehow connected – last night, I attended the launch of the Bristol chapter of Films for Action, headed by Andrew who has worked for Films for Action for the last couple of years and who I will now be working with in Bristol as part of the film festival I co-run; Franklin’s work at subMedia.tv was the theme of the night, some of which is a documentary called END:CIV about the work of radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen. Thanks to the internet, it’s a small world.)

ffa2

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What spurred you to start Films For Action?

Learning about the various ways that the mass media harmed society and filtered out important information led us to thinking about how we could ‘become the media’ in our own town, to help correct the deficiencies of our local media. We had seen a few activist films by that point, and one of our co-founders worked at an independent theater, so one night we were hanging out in a friend’s kitchen and we talked about the idea of hosting a film screening. This first event was a success – 320 people came, so we kept doing more. This article goes into more detail on how we got started: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/be_the_media_change_the_world_a_summary_of_films_for_actions_strategy_for_change/

Are you independently funded?

95% of our funding comes from advertising on the site. The other 5% comes from donations, which we really never promote, but the support we get from people is definitely appreciated. We’d consider this independent because Google Adsense doesn’t care in any way what kind of content we promote, as long as it doesn’t violate their common-sense restrictions. Soon, we’ll be doing PPV (pay-per-view).

Do you get any say in what Google advertises on your site or is it entirely random?

We have the ability to block certain ads or ad accounts, which we do fairly often to keep the ad experience as classy as possible. This is a constant battle though as there are always new ads coming in and we only personally see a small portion of them in daily use of the site.

Do you have another job/income source than Films For Action?

No – after 7 years working on this without pay, FFA has finally become financially able to support myself full-time, as well as 2 part time staff.

How many people work for/with Films For Action?

We have 3 paid staff, 2 of whom are co-founders. We also have 2 other co-founders who currently aren’t active but were for the first several years. We also get a lot of help from our site members, who make submissions to the site.

There’s Eli, who works part-time, maybe a third or fourth of the year, on back-end site coding and feature enhancements for the site. In September 2014, I hired a long-time contributing member of the site to do content curation (seeking out, reviewing, and publishing content on the site, then sharing it on Facebook). Andrew (Butler, who has just set up the Bristol chapter of FFA) lives in the UK and does 20 hours per month.

Then there’s me. I do everything else related to the project, mainly content curation like Andrew. I follow dozens and dozens of activist Facebook pages and websites to filter and scan for good content worth sharing, add the best stuff to the website and share it on social media. I also answer a ton of emails and occasionally speak with chapter leaders on the phone. I used to organize local film screenings but haven’t done that very much in the last couple years, although I occasionally offer advice to others who want to do it (see screening guide at the bottom of the page.)

We also have dozens of city chapters that operate independently from us, and each of those chapters has at least one chapter leader doing work locally. A lot of these chapters are at various levels of activity or inactivity.

Do you consider Films For Action to be politically and/or aesthetically radical?

Yes, politically, as in we try to seek out the root causes and the root solutions to society’s problems. Aesthetically we’ve designed the site to be appealing to a global, mass audience, without any obvious connotations (such as how many anarchist sites have a particular aesthetic which might turn off non-anarchists).

Do you consider your way of organising radical?

I’ve never thought of it is radical, but we’re certainly very different from conventional non-profits and media networks. Our organizing work might be considered anarchist in that we’ve pursued a DIY ethic from the beginning, not content that tries to persuade conventional media to change, or to get anyone else to try to solve these problems. We haven’t tried to appeal to any other non-profit groups, politicians or media to change. We recognized the problem and felt that the best approach would be to create a better media ourselves. The benefit of this is that it doesn’t require waiting on anyone or anything – hosting film screenings or creating a Facebook page or website is something anyone can do.

We’ve also tried to model the kind of organizational values that we believe should be a part of ‘the new media.’ In our case, the people working on FFA have operated in a tribal, non-hierarchical fashion. While I’ve been considered the leader or project director for many years now, decisions are made collectively by the people involved. I’ve frequently deferred to others preferences when there is a disagreement on some aspect of making changes to the site, or occasionally, with content choices.

I think the fact that our group started out among 4 close friends really helped us be productive and effective. We already shared a very similar political perspective, and we already got along really well. We each also had some expertise in a particular area. Because of this, we’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of groups which start out among a bunch of interested strangers who might show up to a public meeting to volunteer, and who may or may not have the relevant skills.

What is your (brief) definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?

To go to the root. To address root-causes.

Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?

I used to share a commonly-held notion in our culture that any truly ‘good’ non-profit work should be done out of the goodness of your heart, but over the years I’ve come to see how this perspective is really problematic. Other activists fortunately helped me dispel this notion. Money in our society is an exchange of value, but presently our society holds entirely backwards notions of what is valuable in society. Sports players and movie stars may make millions of dollars, while teachers and social workers may barely make salaries above the poverty line. It doesn’t make sense to me that people doing some of the most important work in the world (including social change activists) should have to scrape by earning very little, while it is perfectly acceptable for people who work in the financial sector of our economy to produce nothing of any value for society but be making millions every year.

What is interesting is that very few question the ethics of making money from being a doctor or stock trading or serving food, but there is this perceived conflict for those doing social change work. I had this notion stuck in my head too, until I had a hour-long conversation with an activist who called me from Australia. He really helped me to see the value of my work and that there was nothing wrong with being paid to do something that is helping other people. It was his opinion that activists deserve to be compensated for their work, a lot more so than a lot of the jobs that are highly compensated.

This is something that I’ve also seen encountered frequently by documentary filmmakers. Because so many films are released for free, whenever a filmmaker isn’t financially able to do that and needs to charge people to see or buy the film, there are a lot of people that don’t really have any respect or understanding for the fact that filmmakers need to eat and make a living just like everyone else. Yes it’s certainly wonderful when a film can be released for free so that the film can reach a larger audience, but I think it’s unfair that filmmakers are expected to put so much work into their films but people balk when asked to pay to see it, because it’s in the social change category. Some filmmakers can afford to do it, some can’t. We should do our best to support the films that cost money, because for better or worse, money is one of those ways that we can show support for each other. It’s one of the ways that we give value to what people do.

What contact do you have with your audience/viewers?

We get lots of emails and Facebook messages. I also regularly read the comments we get on our Facebook posts. I try to respond to all our emails, and I reply a lot on our Facebook posts. It’s getting harder to respond though with the increasing volume of messages we get.

Which medium do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community around Films For Action?

Facebook. By far. It’s where 90% of our traffic comes from.

Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?

We’ve had several articles or videos go viral now, which gave us dramatic boosts in traffic a few times over the last 2 years. In between that it has been very gradual. We’ve been doing this for 8 years now and if you look at our growth curve the tail at the beginning is suppppperrr long. Things really only took off in the last 2 years.

Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?

Yeah, a little bit. Our main concern has been getting a high viewership for the content we share. This has meant optimizing the title and description of the videos to get a higher click-through and share rate. We’ve taken some lessons from Upworthy in this case, without going as far as they do. Sharing images has also been a good way to build our Facebook audience, more so than sharing links.

If our traffic goes up, that generally ties directly to increasing our Facebook community, so we’ve generally just focused on finding the most important and meaningful content, packaging it as best as we can and then getting it out there.

One interesting factoid is that 2/3 of our Facebook community is outside the US. This has made us focus on content that is relevant to people everywhere, not just the US.

Do you have any qualms using corporate social media, since you are running an anti-corporate media initiative? (No judgment, we all do it…)

No, not really. We’d certainly prefer if there were alternatives that were as widely adopted as Facebook is, but right now, it’s just the nature of the situation.

I’d rather see Facebook used for activist purposes and have some good come out of it then have it not used at all. If activists abandoned it, then it would just become even more entertainment and distraction-oriented and I don’t think that’d be any better.

Reminds me of a quote from Derrick Jensen: “The role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”

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Look for an FFA chapter in your city at their website, and if there isn’t one, create your own. Tim has written a guide to hosting your own public film screenings:http://www.filmsforaction.org/takeaction/films_for_actions_guide_to_hosting_public_film_screenings/

Follow @FilmsForAction on Twitter, and on Facebook, and watch and read their social change films atfilmsforaction.org.

Elizabeth Mizon is a writer, filmmaker and organiser based in Bristol, UK, and recently finished her first feature documentary The Fourth Estate. Follow her @elizabethethird.

Media: Business or Public Service? – my first piece for The Bristol Cable

I recently finished my first feature documentary, and became a co-director of nascent media co-operative The Bristol Cable. This obviously calls for a welded celebration in the form of an article-shaped, self-aggrandizing plug.

Enjoy!

http://thebristolcable.org/2015/04/media-business-or-public-service/

Interview with Franklin Lopez of subMedia.tv

(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)

As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is one of two interviews I will publish, with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.

Franklin Lopez is an anarchist video maker based in North America (though, as he noted early on in our conversation, he considers himself stateless) and creator of the video site subMedia.tv. He has been producing quality political videos (from feature length documentaries to collaborations with poets and mash-ups) for over a decade, all of which can be watched for free at the site, and he produces a monthly radical newsreel vlog that can be found there and on YouTube.

Franklin kindly took time to answer my questions, and thankfully gave some encouraging answers about the contact he has with his audiences, being fairly compensated for his work, and refusing to give up his political values in the name of ‘expansion’.

it's the end of the world as we know it and i feel fine, the stimulator, subMedia.tv, Franklin Lopez interview

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How did subMedia.tv and The Stimulator come about?

Well, subMedia and the stimulator are two different things. subMedia.tv is a website that published anarchist films me and my friends produce as well as other videos, and The Stimulator is the character of a web-vlog we produce called “It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine” or as we call it “The Fuckin Show”.

subMedia.tv was created as an independent venture, owned and funded outside of corporate media with the goal of broadcasting radical and anarchist films. The Fuckin Show was created to provide radical news and analysis on a monthly basis to an audience of radicals and anarchists, and those who are curious about radical and anarchist ideas. The Fuckin Show is supposed to be funny and provide much needed comic relief to the stuffy real of radical and anarchist discourse.

subMedia wasn’t always radical; we made political films with a liberal left sensibility, but it evolved over the years to be the rabble rousing agit prop propaganda media production house that it is today. So in 2001 while the US beat the drums of war, we felt a need to aid the anti-war movement, came into contact with anarchists and thus began this process that radicalized how and why we make films.

Are you completely independently funded?

150 per cent!

How the hell do you fund this operation?

Mostly small donations from viewers, some from DVD sales and some from screenings.

Is there one activity/source that provides the majority of your funding?

Viewers of our videos.

Do you have another job or source of income aside subMedia?

Once or twice a year I’ll do a gig, usually because it falls in my lap but not out of necessity. Last year I did one video for AJ+, the year before some TV channels bought some of our footage and films. Other people who collaborate with us have freelance gigs or are on welfare.

How many people work for and with subMedia?

Right now it’s three of us. Me on a full-time basis and two others on a part-time basis. We also have about 5 volunteers that dedicate a few hours helping us out with media production – in return, they learn video skills.

You are clearly politically radical. Do you consider your work aesthetically radical?

Sure, but I don’t think we’re breaking new ground artistically. We “steal” most of the footage and music we use, blatantly script in our politics no holds barred, use the language we fuckin want, try new things every chance we get.

Do you consider your way of organising and producing work radical?

Sure, one of the things we do that most people don’t notice is to be connected with movements, so a lot of the media that we produce is done with the hope to aid movements. For example, we take some direction from indigenous groups in so called “Canada” to create videos that will help them further their struggle.

What is your definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?

To get to the root of the matter, to not “sugar coat” or dumb down things, to tell it how it is.

Radical is antonymous to Liberal. Radical is antonymous to reformist.

Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?

I’m not sure I understand the question. subMedia has been crowd funding since 2008, and we have never bent our politics in the hopes to generate more income. Sometimes our opinions have cost us viewers, but that’s the price you pay for being honest.

What contact do you have with your audience?

Lots. Emails, Facebook / Twitter / website comments, but my favourite is face to face during or after screenings.

Which social media do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community?

Unfortunately Facebook. We’ve had some success on Twitter, but we find more engagement on Facebook. It was a bit of struggle coming to terms with it, in terms of FB being a capitalist project with little regard to privacy, but our audience are not purists and I think most of them have fake profiles anyway.

Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?

The 2008 Democrat and Republican conventions. subMedia teamed up with a video collective out of Seattle called “Pepper Spray Productions”, and we cranked out 10 shows in 10 days bringing daily reports from the street protests. People at those convergences would gather to see what was accomplished and laugh a little before the following day of action. Same is true of our coverage of the G20 protests in Toronto.

Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?

We have never had the time or foresight to do a marketing plan, so things have happened organically.

Is it important to you to measure/follow this, or do you just sit back and let it grow?

I think it’s interesting to see where your audience is coming from and yes we would like to grow our audience, but not out of the desire to make more money, or just for the sake of reaching more people. We are more interested in reaching the right people, i.e. people who are most likely to engage and get involved with a movement. We’re not that interested in reaching pensioners who sit at home and watch TV, for example. What we have found is that our audience has shifted over the years, and while we have some hardcore fans, we also have fans that outgrow our content and new fans who are excited to engage with radical ideas.  I think it’s a bit dangerous to try to appeal to a certain group based on metrics in order to get more viewers, because you run the danger of bending or softening your discourse in the name of getting more people, instead of staying true to your “raison d’etre” – ours being to disseminate anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas and to aid social movements.

Do you have any particular skills or advice to pass on to others starting their own radical media organisations?

Mainly to be consistent, to be true to your ideals, to honor your audience and not short change them, to the make the best fuckin media you can with the resources available to you.

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Follow @subMedia and @stimulator on twitter, and on Facebook: subMedia/Stimulator, and find all their film and video for free at subMedia.tv.

Elizabeth Mizon is a writer, filmmaker and organiser based in Bristol, UK, and recently finished her first feature documentary The Fourth Estate. Follow her @elizabethethird.

All The World’s a Stage: Politics in Mass Media

political media tvAlthough many mass media texts and channels are more overtly political than others, it can be argued that all media is intrinsically political. Each media creator, text and channel chooses a form and method for the tone and representation of its content, and thus defines its political significance; even a renouncing of political position makes clear the creator’s political stance: that they deem politics irrelevant or inappropriate in the given context. With this in mind, the increase of mass media’s reach around the globe has profound implications for the influence of ideas and ideologies that affect our global governance in real terms. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate over whether we shape the media, or whether the media shapes us, rages on – and it is interesting in this context to note the dynamics between media that concerns politics as its primary topic, and media that contains implicit political ideas.

 

Alongside the developments in technology that have allowed mass media to be almost instantly and globally accessible, has been a commoditisation of the vast majority of mass media (i.e. media outlets are run as a business; texts and channels are bought by an owner and sold to a consumer), the implications of which on the political economy of the media are many and significant with regards to the dissemination of political ideas, and the integrity of mass media to function as a tool in favour of the majority. News’ valued objectivity is compromised and a lack of accountability arises when an individual (or small groups of individuals) hold so much power over the communication of ideas throughout the global village. Certain political ideas are favoured, and some are suppressed, depending on the political ideologies of the owners of mass media outlets – not only in news, but in entertainment.

 

Interestingly, as the global reach of mass media has increased, political engagement and awareness has not necessarily been impacted positively. Of late, there have been record lows of voter turnout, a general distrust of the integrity of politicians and the democratic process, and a cynicism around the integrity of political media reporting itself. This has gone hand in hand with huge cuts to the journalism industry and public arts funding bodies that have rendered investigative journalism and media almost non-existent in the mass market, and an increase in 24 hour news media and information on demand that has left fewer workers with far more work than previously.

 

News

Arguably the most significant debates around political news media of late have been the ethical implications of ownership of vast numbers of news outlets by media conglomerates, and the challenge to them by grassroots organizations and social media. On one hand, the news landscape is dominated by corporate news organizations, and on the other many believe sites such as Twitter propose a significant challenge via alternative means (for many, Twitter’s user-generated front end obscures its corporate status.) With the introduction of 24-hour news channels that bring a constant stream of global political news to television and computer screens, and the rise in popularity of the Internet as a news aggregation tool, there is also a dominance of competing information and competition to be the first to break political stories. There is a contradiction in the depth and intensity of these non-stop media feeds, in that while the speed and coverage with which citizens are introduced to political information technically increases, an intensity of competition and insecurity is created that prevents lucidity of information, and attention to a full spectrum of occurrences. Alistair Campbell argued that during his tenure in Blair’s cabinet, this directly increased the perceived need for political spin within the government, for which he was responsible, since the demand for political information from journalists became incessant. As a result of the new political news climate, Campbell and his team would have to go into overdrive, further obscuring any organic insight into Britain’s political workings.

 

The ethical arguments concern the relationships between politicians and media barons, the financial framework of news corporations, and the culture of journalistic methods. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns hundreds of news outlets on all continents, ranging from television news channels to magazines to newspapers. The global political influence of what is communicated by his outlets, then, is huge. Murdoch publicly maintains that he dictates no editorial line in his papers, yet he is long reported to have had private business meetings with numerous political leaders, and all but one of his newspapers maintained a pro-war line before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Murdoch is the most well known example of this media monopolisation, but he is simply one example of the people who have created these ethical issues in the contemporary landscape of media ownership.

 

Entertainment

Long commoditised, entertainment media has always had a myopic but inextricable relationship with political content. Mass entertainment media could be said to exist on a spectrum of political engagement, ranging from biting satire at one end to fantastical escapism at the other. Again, it must be noted that all stories, representations, and methods of creation contain political values even, and especially when, they efface overt political discussion or engagement.

 

Mass entertainment media on television, in film, in print and now online most traditionally concerns the individual narrative at its core, with a backdrop of spectacle, comedy, romance, violence, or all of the above, to increase its impact. It has also traditionally been, and continues to be, seen as an escape from ‘reality’ and thus a rejection of engagement in favour of respite, though the moralistic values of self-governance and choice ethics of many individual narratives in fact impart some powerful political messages on unsuspecting audiences. (Indeed, were mass entertainment media not so instructive and meaningful, there may be less mass consumption of it.)

 

Campaigning media

Documentaries are perhaps the most overt, and recently massively popular, form of politically engaged and campaigning media. Since Michael Moore’s overtly political Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and his previous film Bowling for Columbine (2002) won critical acclaim and wide distribution, political documentaries have been climbing for the same heights of box office success as features. Bowling for Columbine and Alex Gibney’s Inside Job (2010), concerning America’s fatal relationship to gun ownership and the individual perpetrators of the economic crisis of 2008 respectively, were both awarded the Best Documentary Oscar, and grossed millions of dollars. Neither shyed away from confrontation, and while lacking an explicit call to arms for specific political action, they certainly made their values towards these political disasters clear. Backed by large companies in the mainstream film industry, both received global distribution and engaged audiences en masse.

 

Some of these films have affected real political change – since the exhibition of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a feature documentary about the violent behaviour of captured orcas at theme parks such as SeaWorld, stocks in SeaWorld have dropped dramatically and animal-rights campaigners have heavily promoted and employed the film as a tool in their fight for change in the industry. This has been dubbed ‘the Blackfish effect.’

 

That said, many of these documentaries specifically refrain from laying down an explicit political objective or trajectory that they would like to see post-theatre (in fact, Blackfish did not call explicitly, only implicitly, for the closure of or withdrawal of funds from SeaWorld by investors.) Many campaigning films that do designate explicit political objectives highlight the individual choices of the consumer as a way to affect change (see The End of the Line (2009). In this way, many documentaries can be seen as manifestations of the liberal political contexts from which they come, commoditizing their political messages in the same way that they themselves are bought and sold to survive in the industry, rather than arguing for fundamental or radical political change to the crises or abuses with which they are concerned.

 

However, due to the rise of the internet, standardised and portable media equipment, and advanced user-centred technology, many grassroots media organizations have thrived in the climate of peer-to-peer connection that have been afforded them. In particular, film collectives and co-ops can organize to produce various screen media, then distribute and exhibit them through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo at little to no cost. The labour issues involved are still difficult to navigate since film production is highly time-intensive and funding is sparse, so many radical filmmakers who cannot find a voice or recognition within the industry have pursued creative ventures outside of regular paid work (as has been the artists’ tradition).

 

Similarly, the rise of blogging platforms and self-publishing networks, not to mention social media, has allowed for independent journalism by all, and thus mass media can be brought to the masses by the masses. The drawback of this, of course, is that the tools and means of media creation are now so accessible that the volume of mass media content that is available is dense, nebulous and unregulated; being heard amongst the cacophony is increasingly difficult. The surfacing of quality journalism and filmmaking is in constant rotation and whether it will ever become financially sustainable for individual creators is yet to be seen. However, the aesthetic of online media has changed alongside developments, so that a rougher aesthetic will be accepted where it wouldn’t in mainstream mass media industries, if its content touches on a popular or relavant topic, or has a particularly appealing style.

 

New media

Currently, the Internet and the new media associated with it (such as social media networks, user-generated media, creative development tools, online software subscription, media on demand, etc.) is changing at such a rapid rate, it defies definition. What is true at the time of writing is unlikely to remain timely. What is certain is that the future of media, political mass media, and the politics of, and within, the mass media is potentially radically transformative for society. There is vast opportunity in this new technology and culture of media for increased transparency of information, political behaviour, and political organisation, especially in the context of investigative political journalism around the world. Corporations who currently own and control the mass media, who have an interest in disallowing political upheaval and social change, however, also have an opportunity to colonise cyberspace in the same way they have done the traditional mass media industries.

 

The vastness of the current sphere of both traditional vertically-integrated and burgeoning horizontally-integrated mass media perhaps dilutes its political implications. The nebulous nature of human societies across the global village prevents one accessible and agreeable message from touching everyone, even before it is impacted by the dominance of huge media corporations and their relationships to political and financial elites. If we can engage with new media aggressively and purposefully, rather than passively, we might well see a new politics emerge, and soon.

6 Grim Truths Revealed in ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing has been generating increasing fear and bewilderment amongst the previously ignorant of late, bringing farcical performances of horrific murders from grinning, cha-cha-ing killers to our shocked and appalled senses. Acclaimed documentarist, actor, and executive producer Werner Herzog describes the film as “powerful, surreal and terrifying” and “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The fact that his contract requires him to repeat this to each interviewer is irrelevant; he is correct every time.

ActofKilling-Strangle Once the film finishes and the impotent rage and shaking have subsided, you may find that to stop the repetitions in your mind’s eye, you need to coax your denial back. Tell yourself ‘it could be worse’. And you’d be correct every time!

Admitting there’s a complex, systemic problem is the first step to really understanding and making futile attempts to rectify it. To truly move past the trauma of seeing The Act of Killing, we need to untangle and face all truths hidden beneath the now welcome distraction of pantomime homicide.

  1. The golden age of Hollywood improved the killers’ methods.

Stories thrive on cultural tropes, and Hollywood’s particular brand does comedy duos, underdog narratives and representations of gloriously vicious gang killings to a numbingly high standard. The classical Hollywood era is generally remembered in the collective Western consciousness as timeless, glib, interestingly-lit fantasies; glittery outfits gurning and flailing their way through songs about rain, safe in the knowledge that if ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz was almost certainly one. Their capacity to be read as a series of PSAs for a thrifty, efficient genocide went over our heads.

But this was not lost on The Act of Killing’s very own Laurel and Hardy, Anwar and Herman, who reveal that prior to the genocide they were just regular blue-collar gangsters (read: fateful underdogs), working in a black-market cinema which showed then-banned Hollywood films. They loved the good-ol days of industrialised ‘Merican cultural output as much as the next…average joe, from the latest Elvis vehicle to the many variations by which each genre depicted their protagonists committing efficacious murders.

Mob films were especially beloved by the gangsters, as they saw their lives reflected in the consequence-free narratives of their American brothers-in-arms. Anwar confesses that seeing those wily Americans performing that old ‘strangulation with wire’ act (classic!) in Hollywood gangster films gave them their preferred method for ending the lives of their many opponents. In an interview given on Indonesian public television, the show’s host trills enthusiastically at the “amazing” revelation that they were inspired by films, to create  “a system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive force”. And she’s on to something; the hilarious re-enactments of sadism-reduced torture featuring rotund cross-dressing extrovert Herman and self-congratulatory, wannabe-thespian Anwar is truly breathtaking. (Sorry.)

The real tragedy, of course, is that henceforth, when we watch a previously-beloved gangster film or the latest murder-centric thriller, we wont be able to enjoy it. The suspension of disbelief we relied on through torn flesh SFX and each scene of human-rights abuses, has been irrevocably ruined by those anti-commie bastards. And around half of us pay good money for our denial! Screw you, reality. The concept “it’s only a movie” has been rendered useless.

  1. Our government supported the genocide.

While officially Western democratic governments maintain that they were ignorant (I am tempted to end that sentence there, but that would be childish) to what was occurring in 1965, historians have claimed that they either allowed the communist purge to happen, or directly helped it along with loans, arms supplies and then turning a blind eye to what they’d already seen. At a 2009 international conference discussing the events in Singapore, Bradley R. Simpson, an assistant professor at Princeton and an expert on Indonesian history, said while he did not believe the US masterminded the coup (noting that as a distinct possibility) “there is a lot of evidence that the US was engaged in covert operations . . . to provoke a clash between the Army and the PKI . . . to wipe them out,” referring to the Indonesian Communist Party.

David Jenkins, former foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, added to this narrative noting that “the Australian, British and US embassies were aware of the mass killings, but did not raise a single protest to the systemic slaughter launched by the Army against the PKI.”

Unfortunately, knowing what we now know about military bartering, covert involvement in foreign conflicts and a general colonial attitude to the murder of brown people and/or The Baddies, it’s just not surprising to learn that we were on the wrong side of history in this particular genocide. Yawn, next…

  1. We, personally, depend on these regimes for our lifestyles.

In subsequent interviews, Oppenheimer has repeatedly made clear the connections these events have to the daily lives of the globalised capitalist societies (that’s most of us; almost certainly you. It’s definitely me.) The market forces of capitalism that underpin the retail industries rely on modernised slave labour to function, and that slave labour is enforced primarily in countries which have histories of mass poverty and violent, fatalistic oppression. Western companies and their consumers, in turn, fuel the end demand rampantly, every time a product made within these industries is advertised or purchased. Living without making these purchases is arguably possible, but so elusive and expensive that it could be branded and packaged as a luxury item itself.

Oppenheimer’s explanation of this dynamic in an interview with the LA Review of Books’ is a matter-of-fact, gentle yet stark indictment of this process, and the millions of people who must deny it to continue their lives without action to change it. He rightly reminds us that

“we are much closer to the perpetrators than we like to think. We know that even though in some way we may be victims of political systems, we’re also perpetrators. We know that every article of clothing touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. We know that all of them are working in places where there has been mass political violence, be it China or Indonesia. Where perpetrators have won, have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are not only killing themselves, are poisoning themselves in the process, but also unable to get the struggle of the human cost of everything we buy incorporated in the price tag we pay. That is to say we depend on the reality you see in The Act of Killing for our everyday living, which is to say also that this is not some distant reality on the other side of the world that is interesting to see how human beings have built this kind of upside down wonderland where black is white and white is black, good is evil and evil’s good. But rather, this is the underbelly of our reality.”

Sitting on donated furniture, in second-hand clothing (Made in Taiwan), typing on my second-hand laptop (Made in China), any sense of second-hand vindication fades from my tenuous grasp.

  1. Knowledge is not power.

While documentary film can be a fantastically powerful and effective medium for communication, it often tricks slacktivists into believing that they are part of the solution to wider systemic problems just by employing their ocular functions in a particular direction and acknowledging that a horrific situation is, indeed, totally happening or has like, literally happened. Documentaries are fantastic at posing questions, but not often successful (or appropriate for) giving answers or solutions to them. We know from TAOK and from history textbooks that these events have hardly been hidden from view, but what use is awareness in the face of continued oppression from the source that created it? Oppenheimer himself has said that “a film can’t change Indonesia. A film can just create space for Indonesians to change Indonesia.”

And we have to be hopeful that that space is large enough, because I’m pretty sure (though do check Wikipedia for me) that since the film premiered in 2012, global shit has still been hitting the worldwide fan at its previous velocities. Indeed, “the function of art is to show people what they know, but have been too afraid to say.” And what then? Unfortunately, in the main, people who have the powerful knowledge of oppression (in the form of flashbacks, scars, dead loved ones etc.) do not get into power, because it’s the people in power who oppressed them. Knowledge may be powerful, but commandeered power is like a fucking video game boss with cheat mode on.

  1. The perpetrators will almost certainly remain unpunished.

Following on nicely from our last uplifting anecdote, it is clear to see the remaining regime of violence and extortion that exists as a power structure in Indonesia. This is not going to change because a film draws attention to it, and there have been reports that the film has in fact failed to interest many Indonesians; in a Jakarta Post article titled “What Next After ‘Act of Killing’?” scholar Ariel Heryanto is quoted as saying

“The film falls well short of generating the controversy in Indonesia that it deserves, particularly when compared with the impact it had on its international audience.”

It is noted that several screenings in Indonesia have been cancelled “due to lack of interest. Some viewers even walked out of the film before it ended, while others thought TAOK glorified its protagonists.”

“If Indonesian viewers do not react to The Act of Killing with the same emotions as their international counterparts, the reason is not simply fear in expressing their voice,” Ariel said. “Rather, it is because news about preman-ism [gangsterism], vigilante behavior and their boasting impunity are all too common in everyday life.”

It seems huge numbers of Indonesian people have resigned to oppression and impunity as a part of their everyday life. In the same way that we mostly give up our voices and actions to business-as-usual in our own corporate-political system.

  1. It could have been you.

One of the hugest triumphs, and the most uncomfortable byproducts, of The Act of Killing is that the film forces us to see people, and not simply what they did. We watch these grandfathers play with their small grandchildren, teaching them how to be kind, trying to maintain their tenuous sense of authority. We are shown a bind of lifelong friendship that locks them into a grave trust and support of each other, allowing them to believe they weren’t (and aren’t) wrong, bad, or immoral because of their shared crimes. They are just another few in our giant community having to deny ignorance, misgivings and cruel behaviour in order to live with themselves. They do not have the liberty of allowing their beliefs and self-righteousness to slip. We aren’t sorry for them, neither should we be.

Having spent years interviewing perpetrators of genocide, Oppenheimer has said “For me, none of them are monsters, although their crimes are monstrous. […] Meeting the perpetrators makes it obvious that there is no monster. They are still human. They are still very, very human.” At a Q&A screening at my local cinema, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a direct question. Did spending time with these men for God knows how long, constantly having to hear (and accept?) their boasts and laughter about brutal murders, become easier or harder as time passed? He replied, he and his crew quickly became numb, and remained so for a great deal of time. Then sleepless nights started, then nightmares, and the cycle of no sleeping/recurrent nightmares continued for around 8 months. Still, he admitted that he could not guarantee that given the same upbringing and the same experiences, he would not have done the things that the 80+ perpetrators that he interviewed have done, and spent the rest of his life trying to blithely justify it.

We are all as vulnerable as each other to systemic patterns of violence, dominance, denial, delusion, and disregard for each other. Our families and friendships are full of it. With a few exceptions, we have brought it into our global political systems. And we need to understand the fundamental micro-actions we all perform to prevent seemingly indecipherable macro-abuses.

“We have to somehow accept that within the boundaries of humanity, crimes of that magnitude are still possible. They are not completely exotic. They’re not foreign to human nature. That’s a hard thing to swallow.”

[NB: This started out as a comedy article for Cracked, originally written as 6 Ways to Mentally Process the Act of Killing, a piece about my inability to do so. It has changed a lot since the first draft and, understandably, I feel conflicted in writing a (somewhat) comic piece relating to a genocide. However, my hope is that whoever reads this will engage with the conflicts within it, and with the film and the history if you haven’t yet done so.]