Statement of Critic Man
On the films The Act of Killing and Blackfish
Denver, Colo., Aug. 18, 2013 — In case there already isn’t controversy surrounding these purported documentaries, Critic Man would like to start some by issuing the following statement in reaction to these films. Disclaimer: Critic Man took no part in the filming, financing or formation of these films. He receives no compensation from the filmmakers or anyone depicted or mentioned therein. His only involvement was in witnessing them when they were released to theaters in August 2013.
“I had the chance to witness two films recently,” said Critic Man. “One was titled The Act of Killing that was supposed to be about mass killings. The other was called Blackfish that was also supposed to be about mass killings, but instead by killer whales at ocean theme parks.”
Critic Man burst on the scene to critically vanquish the tiresome comic book superhero genre when the film Van Helsing was released in 2004 wherein that fictitious hunter of vampires was transformed into a comic book superhero battling all sorts of historic baddies and demons, which were similarly transformed into creatures that bore no relation to their literary or cinematic origins. Critic Man resurfaces from time-to-time to comment on films when given permission by The Colorado Statesman, or when the mood strikes him. These films provided such a platform for his re-emergence from relative obscurity.
“If you’re looking for a full historical account of the genocide of Indonesian communists following a military coup in that country in 1965-66, then The Act of Killing is not the film for you,” continues Critic Man. “We are not given any of the social, economic, religious or cultural contexts that led up to the killings, no grainy black-and-white photos or historic footage from shaky handheld camcorders of the events that occurred. We are not told about the complex ethnic and religious divisions in that country that were the backdrop for such a massacre. We are not provided any frame of reference about this nation that stretches over 17,000 islands, nor are we subjected to the dry recitations by present day experts on Indonesian history generally and this sorry episode in particular. There aren’t even any insights into why genocides like this occur, how they become formulated in certain societies, what factors are necessary or sufficient, or even an analysis of whether these killings were genocidal under certain definitions of that term.”
The Act of Killing.
Photo by Drafthouse Films
The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, depicts people who were actually involved in the murders back in 1965-66 and their present recollections and ruminations — and justifications — of their actions. Their killing methods are reenacted by these very former perpetrators in a variety of creative styles and settings such as 1920s gangsters — especially as they were partial to Hollywood films at the times these killings took place.
Photo by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures
“And if you are looking for a backgrounder on the workings of ocean theme parks, then Blackfish isn’t for you,” continued Critic Man. “Nowhere does the film mention the significant and internationally recognized efforts of SeaWorld to protect and rescue ocean mammals like killer whales, dolphins and seals. Nor does the film talk about how the performing critters are typically cared for at SeaWorld’s sites, or the fact that SeaWorld has halted the appalling historical technique of ruthlessly capturing and removing young orcas from their mothers and family units. And it utterly fails to mention all of the actions that SeaWorld has taken following recent trainer deaths and subsequent lawsuits brought by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to address safety issues at its parks. Nor do we get scientific background on the distribution of killer whales across the globe and the whaling activities that continue to this day by various nations. There isn’t even an examination of the attraction of such theme amusement parks.”
Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, profiles a number of animal trainers who were killed by killer whales (orcas) at marine theme parks over the years. Special attention is paid to SeaWorld and a whale named Tilikum, who killed Dawn Brancheau at the Orlando Park in 2010 and the ensuing lawsuit related to that incident. Various former trainers are interviewed about their work at the parks, the treatment of the animals and the tragic incidences. SeaWorld declined to participate in the film.
“What do we get instead?” Critic Man asks. “We get:
• Grown men dressed in drag.
• Grown men crying.
• The singing of and crying for “Born Free” (for animals and humans justifying violent action against purported oppressors).
• People watching and commenting on videotaped depictions of horrific events.
• People expressing guilt and shame for their involvement in atrocious events and activities.
• Achingly tormented emotional endings.
“But mostly,” Critic Man retorts, “We get two films that aren’t really about what they are ostensibly about, but rather something just under the surface. None of this sublimated reality is the central focus of these films in that it is not directly addressed, expressed in the commentary of interviewees, nor knowingly examined by the filmmakers.
Critic Man has seen many documentary films and so believes that he is qualified to make these observations.
“This is false labeling at its most crass. These are supposed to be documentaries — films designed to inform viewers about particular events and issues, to provide insight and depth of understanding regarding that subject matter. But, sadly, the documentary film itself as a concept has gone the way of Indonesian communists and the Yangtze River dolphin — especially since Michael Moore co-opted the genre and remade it into his own image; well, not in his actual image, but you get my drift.”
“No,” Critic Man asserts, “What we have now are documentaries whose true agenda is to force one to wonder just what is the ‘truth.’ These films — perhaps unbeknownst even to their makers — ask that you not get lulled into the ins and outs of court testimony, eyewitness accounts, personal confessions, reenactments, recollections and document excerpts. They each start with a single overarching piece of undisputed empirical evidence, namely that:
• Millions of Indonesian communists (and others) were killed following a military coup in that country in 1965-66.
• A number of trainers were killed by orcas at a variety of ocean theme parks over the years.
“Everything else is murky, just like life. But I mean really, reality is fuzzy and gray enough already without having documentaries such as these muddy the waters even further. Memories fade, opinions vary, values and beliefs get in the way, personal experiences and preferences are manifest.
“On the surface, it may appear that Blackfish is trying to protect people — the trainers — from having to work in inherently dangerous conditions next to viciously wild and unpredictable animals. But its real objective is to manipulate you into thinking that all aspects of forcing wild animals to perform for our amusement are morally suspect. You can sense that there are people and forces behind the scenes — powerful influences — that are never exposed or confronted directly, like the millions of paying customers to such theme parks or the human curiosity and desire to see firsthand the creatures that inhabit the earth with us. Where’s the upfront explication of these elements of ‘truth?’ We have to chew on these deep matters ourselves like a trained seal munching on a rewarded fish.
“That’s what’s also wrong with The Act of Killing. Instead of getting a clear impression of how and why people engage in mass murders, we are exposed to complex human beings who seemingly launch into extravagant fantasy worlds as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from facing the harsh reality of what they have done. But we never get any psychiatrists or mental health experts to analyze the perpetrators’ behavior and help us understand the meaning of the fantasy playacting that occurs throughout the film. We don’t know if we’re supposed to feel sorry for these people, fear them, hate them, recoil or even laugh at their antics and personal rationalizations. The result is a vague uncomfortableness of having to work through these issues ourselves, leaving us feeling abused and tormented like their simulated victims.
“So, if filmmakers insist on continuing to make documentaries like these, they should give them a more appropriate name, such as, oh I don’t know, how about ‘walkyoumullaries’ — films that force you to mull over what is truth as you walk out of the theater.”
In all truthfulness, Doug Young is an award-winning film critic. He also documents policy-making in the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper.