The Documentary of the Imagination project is exploring innovative ways of working with participants in non-fiction filmmaking. The project aims to develop new understandings that will enable future films with ground-breaking insights into the imaginative worlds of the participants and their societies to be made. In a world where self-staging via social media is increasingly prevalent in everyday life, where documentary formats are in flux, and where documentaries are available on ever more diverse platforms, questions of how filmmakers select their participants, work with them in ethical ways to elicit meaningful performances for the camera and then transform these performances into insightful films are increasingly urgent.
Through a series of workshops, film shoots, discussions with film-makers and an extended editing process, complemented by rigorous critical analysis, this practice-led project examines how the working methods developed by Joshua Oppenheimer while making his two feature documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) may be transferred and adapted to new cultural and political contexts. Those two films are among the most successful and critically-lauded documentaries of recent times, winning more than 140 awards between them, including a BAFTA, two Oscar nominations and the Puma Impact Award. Widely seen as game-changers, Werner Herzog described the films as ‘a new form of cinematic surrealism’, establishing a third space between fiction and non-fiction.
This new project seeks to define, translate and advance those films’ methodology of ‘self-staging and recursive reflexivity’, which was developed by Oppenheimer and partly inspired by the pioneering practices of ethnographer Jean Rouch. In this method, Oppenheimer invited potential participants to stage themselves on camera in whatever ways they wished, inviting them to dramatise their lives and ambitions for the future. Soon after, he screened footage from each shoot back to them, on the basis of which they devised new scenes. The current project is applying these filmmaking methods in new geographical, cultural and political contexts – including the USA, Europe, Japan and Greenland – and will investigate and compare how they must be adapted to each location. It will explore the different forms a ‘documentary of the imagination’ might take, and the kinds of histories that may be narrated in each place.
The project is funded by the AHRC and supported by the University of Westminster. Project Partners include Bertha DocHouse, CPH:DOX, Doc Society, Final Cut for Real and Sundance Institute.
PROFESSOR JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER: Principal Investigator
Joshua Oppenheimer is Professor of Film, and a two-time Academy Award nominee and BAFTA prizewinner. His films have redefined the possibilities of documentary cinema. His debut feature, The Act of Killing (2014) was Oscar® Nominee for Best Documentary, and has won many awards. His second film, The Look of Silence (2016 Oscar® Nominee for Best Documentary), premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won five awards, including the Grand Jury Prize. Both films have helped transform Indonesia’s understanding of the most important event in its modern history – the 1965-66 genocide – inspiring a movement for truth, reconciliation and justice. Beyond Indonesia, public discussions around the films prompted the US government to declassify 30,000 previously secret files detailing America’s complicity in the massacres. Cinema Eye Honors named Joshua a decade-defining filmmaker in 2016, and both his films as decade-defining films. In 2014, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. For more on Joshua’s research see visit: westminster.ac.uk – Joshua Oppenheimer
PROFESSOR ROSIE THOMAS: Co-Investigator
Rosie Thomas‘ research expertise lies in two areas: Indian cinema and documentary practice. As Professor of Film, she is a pioneer of the academic study of popular Indian cinema, establishing an international reputation following the publication of her first groundbreaking article on Hindi cinema in Screen in 1985. Originally trained as a social anthropologist at the London School of Economics, Rosie did her first fieldwork, a production study of the Bombay film industry, in the early 1980s. Since then she has written widely on Indian cinema, contributing to numerous books and journals, and co-founding and co-editing the Sage journal BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies. Rosie’s documentary interests date back to her earlier career as an independent television producer, running her own company, Hindi Picture, in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout the 1990s Rosie made documentaries and current affairs programmes for UK’s Channel Four television on a range of subject matters, from health and mental health issues to South Asian politics, arts and culture. For more on Rosie’s research see: westminster.ac.uk – Rosie Thomas
SIDSEL FILIPSEN: Research Associate
Sidsel Filipsen has a background in Anthropology, which she studied at the University of Copenhagen, with a special emphasis on Visual Anthropology. In 2022, she will graduate as a Film Producer from Super16, the leading independent film school of Denmark. Since 2014, Sidsel has been collaborating with Joshua Oppenheimer and producer Signe Byrge Sørensen at the Copenhagen-based film production company Final Cut for Real. Working with both fiction and documentary projects, Sidsel has produced six short films to date.
The methodology being explored in the Documentary of the Imagination project was originally developed by Joshua Oppenheimer in the context of the University of Westminster’s AHRC-funded research project, Genocide and Genre, (2008-2011; PI: Joram ten Brink; Research Fellow: Joshua Oppenheimer), which resulted in the production of two feature documentaries and the book Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence (2012). See REF2014: case study – Genocide and Genre and REF2021: case study – Advancing Truth, Reconciliation and Justice for the Indonesian Genocide.
The Act of Killing
In The Act of Killing, victorious and seemingly unrepentant perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide draw on their cinematic fantasies – often informed by their knowledge of Hollywood cinema – when asked to suggest genres, write scripts, and direct scenes that dramatise their roles in the killings. Through this disturbing dramatic space, the work investigates not only the routines of violence, but also how an entire society has been built on the basis of terror and trauma. The film discovers and presents the conditions for a new form of nonfiction film: a documentary of the imagination. The perpetrators’ re-enactments, and observational footage documenting their filmmaking process, communicate the manner in which the perpetrators wish to be seen, and how they imagine themselves and the society they built and rule over. The Act of Killing thus pioneers a new approach to nonfiction filmmaking, historical filmmaking, the investigation of political violence, and the social imagination.
The Look of Silence
While The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies, The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality. It asks what happens to a whole society and its people when they live in fear and silence for fifty years.
Through Oppenheimer’s footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. Thematically, the documentary film is a cinematic poem about a silence borne of terror, the necessity of breaking that silence, and the trauma that comes when the silence is broken. Such an approach disrupts clichéd modes of filmmaking that present survivors of genocide as saintly, which does nothing to help us understand what it means to survive atrocity, to live a life shattered by mass violence, and to be silenced by terror.
EVENTS ONLINE 2021-22
Since summer 2021 we have been running a bi-monthly series of online events at which the PI, Joshua Oppenheimer, discusses with other filmmakers he admires some of the key questions that have arisen through our research process and its explorations. These concern innovative ways of working with participants in non-fiction filmmaking, how one stages documentary mise-en-scene, and questions around storytelling in editing documentary films. The event series will continue into early 2022. Registration and attendance at these events is free. Recordings of all talks will be available on this site from early 2022.
Wednesday 3rd November 2021
Award-winning film editor Niels Pagh Andersen and director Joshua Oppenheimer discuss the editing process in documentary film, including how they worked together on The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. As a prelude to the launch of Niels’s ground-breaking new book Order in Chaos: storytelling and editing in documentary film, which reflects on processes, methods, collaborations and insights from a long and distinguished career as a film editor, Niels and Joshua open up, for the first time, their playful, feverish process to a wider public.
Niels Pagh Andersen is editor of more than 250 films, including Joshua Oppenheimer’s modern classics The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Other credits include Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, Ai Weiwei’s Vivos and Human Flow, Jennifer Fox’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, Pirjo Honkasalo’s 3 Rooms of Melancholia and Concrete Night. He is the 2005 recipient of Denmark’s most prestigious award in documentary filmmaking, the Roos Prize. In 2012, he became Professor at The Norwegian Film School and has just completed a book on film editing, Order in Chaos – Storytelling and editing in documentary film. The book is based on decades of extensive artistic research and will be launched on November 21st at this year’s edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Monday 14 February 2022
How do we tell stories of the aftermath of runaway, catastrophic change? How do we narrate survival among the ruins left behind by capitalism? Anna Tsing, ground-breaking, acclaimed anthropologist (Mushroom at the End of the World; the Feral Atlas project) in conversation with Joshua Oppenheimer. Both began their careers in Indonesia; they discuss the different trajectories they followed and the overlap of interests in their recent and current work.
Anna Tsing teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and sometimes at Aarhus University, Denmark. She is co-editor of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene (www.feralatlas.org) and author of various books, including The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.
Wednesday 14th July 2021
Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson, Dick Johnson is Dead) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence) discuss the use of performance in nonfiction cinema and how they collaborate with their participants.
Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead premiered at Sundance 2020 and won the Jury Prize for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It went on to win Best Documentary and Best Director for the Critic’s Choice Award, Best Editing and Best Writing from the IDA, Best Director from Cinema Eye, was included on dozens of top films of 2020 lists and made the Oscar shortlist. Her previous film, Cameraperson, named in New York Times ‘Top Ten Films of 2016’, was also shortlisted for the Academy Award. Her short, The Above was nominated for the IDA’s ‘Best Short Award’ for 2016. Her camerawork appears in Academy Award winner Citizen Four, Academy nominated The Invisible War, and Cannes Winner Fahrenheit 9/11. She is one of the only 4% of women members of American Society of Cinematographers.
Tuesday 14th September 2021
Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov (Honeyland) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence), as they discuss their approaches to staging and mise-en-scene in non-fiction film. Honeyland (2019), which won two Oscar nominations and three Sundance awards, was shot over three years in the north Macedonian mountains, and built up an intimate relationship with an elderly woman who used ancient beekeeping traditions to cultivate honey. The film chronicles the tensions that follow the arrival of new neighbours who ignore her wisdom and advice.
Tamara Kotevska and Llubomir Stefanov’s debut feature film Honeyland (2019 Oscar® Nominee for Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature) won numerous awards and nominations at international film festivals, including three awards at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and two Cinema Eye Honors Awards. Tamara Kotevska graduated in film directing from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje and has five years’ experience in documentary and fiction filmmaking as a freelance director. Ljubomir Stefanov has more than 20 years’ experience in development and production of documentaries on environmental issues and human development for organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme, EuroNatur and Swisscontact.
The project is hosted by CREAM at Westminster School of Arts, University of Westminster, UK (Lead Research Organisation).
It is supported by funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (Funding Partner).
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training, in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe. Visit the AHRC website at: ahrc.ukri.org
Bertha DocHouse (Project Partner)
Bertha DocHouse is the UK’s first cinema dedicated solely to documentary. Based at Curzon Bloomsbury in Central London, it screens the best new releases, curated seasons, festival favourites and classic titles, providing an exciting platform for documentary filmmakers and nurturing a new generation of doc lovers. With a programme packed with filmmaker Q&As, masterclasses, special events and an online hub accessible from anywhere in the world, Bertha DocHouse is the home of documentary.
CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival) (Project Partner)
CPH:DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, is one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world. CPH:DOX was founded in 2003 by the festival’s current CEO, Tine Fischer. CPH:DOX has had the pleasure of introducing its audience to some of the best Danish and international documentary films in Copenhagen for almost 20 years. CPH:DOX doesn’t just show documentary films but anchors them in a social context through debates, artist talks, events and masterclasses. In the hope of creating real social transformation, CPH:DOX establishes a space for reflection, dialogue and opinion across our society, making sure that the films and their themes stay with the viewers long after the films have ended.
Doc Society (Project Partner)
Doc Society is a non-profit founded in 2005 committed to enabling great documentary films and connecting them to audiences globally. Based in London and New York, Doc Society works with filmmakers and partners all over the world. Doc Society brings people together to unleash the transformational power of documentary film. Doc Society stands in solidarity with filmmakers and works to unite them with new friends and allies, building new models globally.
Final Cut for Real (Project Partner)
Final Cut for Real is a production company based in Denmark dedicated to producing high-end, creative documentaries and fiction films for the international market. Founded in 2009 by producers Signe Byrge Sørensen and Anne Köhncke, the company works with young directors as well as established talent to create a productive mixture of experience and innovative approaches to filmmaking. Final Cut for Real’s policy is to be curious, daring and to seek out directors with serious artistic ambitions, and to work with the best cinematographers, editors, sound designers, composers and colourists in the industry, both locally and internationally. Final Cut for Real is the production company behind Joshua Oppenheimer’s two films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.
Sundance Institute (Project Partner)
The Sundance Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programmes, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film, media, and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work. The institute’s staff of 180 employees works year-round from offices in Park City, Los Angeles, and New York City to provide 25 residential labs, grants exceeding $3 million, and ongoing mentorships that support more than 900 artists each year. Each January, the Sundance Film Festival introduces a global audience to groundbreaking work and emerging talent in independent film.