Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Documentary Filmmakers Debate One of Their Own

by |


Documentary filmmaker and Cinema Eye Honors founder A.J. Schnack (left), and British producer Nick Fraser (right) have engaged in a battle of opinions over The Act of Killing.

I just can’t let this one go by. But I am going to try to not take sides. Not yet, at least.

Last year, the documentary The Act of Killing blew many doc fans away with its innovative and highly charged conceit — director Joshua Oppenheimer asked the perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia to recreate their gruesome crimes. You’ve had plenty of opportunity to see the film and read about it. (If you haven’t, I recommend you do.)

But what you may be unaware of is the battle of opinions that the film has invoked within the documentary film world.

There have been heaps of praise for the film, and there was some criticism knocking it, notably from Jennifer Merin back in July. But things only got heated when Nick Fraser, a British producer of docs, wrote a flaming screed against the film, titled “Don’t Give an Oscar to this Snuff Film.” His article appeared on February 22, 2014, just a couple of days before the voting for the Oscars concluded.

A couple of weeks later, filmmaker and film theorist Jill Godmilow (Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, Waiting for the Moon) published a similarly scathing critique of the film. It was, it seems, too much for doc filmmaker and Cinema Eye Honors founder A.J. Schnack to take, so he replied with a counter-blast defending The Act of Killing on March 10.

To summarize the argument against The Act of Killing, it’s irresponsible and immoral filmmaking to enlist killers as actors in your film. To summarize the defense, the film is a brilliant way to get the audience — and the killers themselves — to use storytelling to reconcile with the truth.

I’ve made clear in the past that I am of the latter opinion. But I don’t want to take sides in this fight. I simply want to draw your attention to it, let you judge it for yourselves, and outline the significance.

To take the long view approach, I do think Schnack is spot-on in asserting that this debate illustrates “a massive shift in how we think about the documentary form that is generational.”

In fact, Schnack’s writing is itself a part of that shift. It’s almost a manifesto for the new generation of documentary filmmakers who prioritize story over faithful depictions of the realistic truth. What’s ironic is that the battle is taking shape here against previous innovators of the form, Fraser and Godmilow.

Tellingly, Schnack’s argumentation isn’t entirely intellectual and veers into the very rhetoric and conjecture that he accuses Fraser of doing. Schnack asserts that “one could only surmise that the authors hoped to derail that film’s (already against-the-odds) Best Documentary chances or to plant a virus in the film’s reputation as it reached the world’s biggest stage for film.”

Even if there’s truth to what he’s saying, Schnack is assuming motivations. And, sure enough, in the latest salvo two days ago, Fraser wrote a response in the comments section of Schnack’s piece, in which he describes the less-than-nefarious germination of the article he wrote, and indicates that he was not motivated to damage the film’s prospects, but simply because “I have something I want to say.”

Where Schnack and Fraser both seem to agree is that there isn’t room for serious argument regarding documentary, and Fraser points out that Schnack’s attack is further evidence of this.

I think Fraser’s got a fair point on this one. Schnack claims his critique of the critiques of Fraser and Godmilow isn’t about their age, but he conveniently puts that argument in others’ mouths; “The weighted language and the historic references that both used brought to mind in some readers an elder who couldn’t understand why the whippersnapper wasn’t getting rapped on the knuckles,” he writes.

What’s particularly tricky about all this is that Fraser, Godmilow and Schnack are each deeply imbedded in the same world—they write about documentary, they produce, they create, they curate—that it feels like we’re listening in on a family argument.

It’s the cycle of life, isn’t it? It’s hard not to see Schnack slamming the door as he runs out to the garage with the car keys.

And yet, and I believe him when he says he wants to play “fair and nice,” as he writes. But change is rarely doled out that way.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • powertothedocumentary

    Super handbag fight. How about we progress the critique of documentary rather than the critique of criticism.

  • Simon Kilmurry

    Hi Tom,

    Interesting piece and welcomed debate, but one quibble.

    I don’t agree with Nick in his opinion of The Act of Killing (I think it is a fascinating film), but I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to Nick’s writing as a “flaming screed”. We should also remember that writers do not compose their headlines, and in this case, The Guardian employed a bot too much hyperbole.


    • Tom Roston

      Thanks, Simon. I didn’t want to get into the he-said-she-said details of the battle, but you’re right to point out that Fraser says he didn’t choose that inflammatory title. I’d love to know if he saw it before publication though, and let it ride.

      • JC

        ‘Flailing screed’ would be better. Fraser does use the term ‘high-minded snuff movie’ in the body of his piece and other misrepresentations such as the bizarre argument that documentary should be ‘literal as well as truthful’. The problem with Fraser’s writings and Godmilow’s absurd ‘Rules’ to follow in response to TAOK, is that they’ve come off as somewhat hypocritical, and frankly they both know better.

  • Program

    The problem with the doc was that the relationship between the filmmakers and the paramilitary organization was not transparent. How did he gain access and trust of all the leadership? Didnt they think Oppenheimer was doing a propaganda piece? What did he have to promise them in order to gain access?

  • Pingback: Documentary Filmmakers Debate One of Their Own ...

  • Jonathan Miller

    The differences aren’t of age, that’s just convenient and easy, the differences are ones of (pop) culture, and ambitions. And there are plenty of young filmmakers who don’t “prioritize story over faithful depictions of the realistic truth” – they just aren’t the ones that get most of the attention. They’re not as “sexy”,

    • Rupesh

      Beatles! Stones! Brando! You can use that argument to dismiss the Maysles Brothers as well.