Documentary Films, Mass Killing and the Urgent Need to Remember

17/05/2016 15:32 | Updated 17 May 2016

On Tuesday I attended a masterclass with documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. He was discussing his powerful and phenomenally successful documentary The Act of Killing and its follow-up The Look of Silence, films which explore the memory of the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, during which 500,000 to 1 million people are estimated to have been killed. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer meets some of the perpetrators of torture and murder, asking them to re-enact the events. The murderers remain in power: There has been no official investigation of the massacres and the perpetrators remain national heroes. The Look of Silence focuses on the surviving families of the victims.

I got chatting to the woman next to me, who saw my notebook and asked if I write a blog. I was surprised by her observation because I have always brought a notebook to such events, even before I wrote a blog. It helps me to remember what's been said, naturally. I asked her about her interest in the masterclass. 'My mother is from Indonesia and she lost a lot of family members in the massacres.' Despite our different motivations for attending, we were both performing acts of memory.

Also this week, I was in touch via email with someone I hadn't seen for many years. She replied, 'did I see you at the Jonas Mekas BFI talk a year or two ago? Someone whom I couldn't quite place asked a question that I now thought might have been you.' Yes, yes, I was there, but I don't remember asking a question. So I thought I'd have a look in my notebook as maybe that would jog my memory. How strange that I know I was there but I don't remember asking a question. I must have done, otherwise how would the old friend have noticed me in the dark auditorium?

So I decide to look up my old notebooks. And I can't find the right one. They're dusty, they're disordered, they're not all in the same place - since the Mekas event I've moved house and started new notebooks. I can't even find my file of printed BFI screen notes. Nor could Google manage to give me the exact date of the screening (either December 2012 or January 2013), which I'd hoped would enable me to find the correct notebook. And then it dawns on me: maybe I didn't take notes that day. I'd recently completed my PhD, maybe I thought I didn't need to take notes any more, that I could just relax and enjoy a screening and Q&A without taking notes. What a thought! But how could I have asked a question if I hadn't taken notes first? How would I ever remember what I said if I can't find my notebook? It was a small act - but if I did do it, I don't want to forget it.

How ironic, given that Mekas has obsessively documented his life on film for decades.

Inheriting memory

The Oppenheimer masterclass bore similarities with a Q&A I moderated in Febrary following a screening of My Nazi Legacy, with filmmaker Philippe Sands and director David Evans. Sands meets the sons of two Nazi senior governors who had been responsible for mass murders. Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter demonstrate very different attitudes towards their fathers. Niklas recognises, condemns and despises his father's actions; whereas Horst defends his father, seemingly unable or unwilling to reconcile his love and respect for his father with the vast evidence for his complicity and approval of mass murder. For Sands, the documentary filmmaking project was seeped in personal relevance because much of his family had perished in Ukraine during the Holocaust, the very region overseen by Otto von Wächter.

Documentary film concerns itself with memory and memorialising. We need documentary art to function alongside other documentary evidence; we need to remember creatively. We need various ways to remember because memory is active, it is alive, it is a dynamic function of life. And there is of course space for narrative, dramatisation of the past as well as documentary (although the distinctions between these two modes are often blurred); the Oscar-winning Son of Saul demonstrates the still-present need to process culturally the events of over 70 years ago.

The appetite for films about the Holocaust remains, because it is a living memory. We are still living with it not as a memory of the past but as a very real, very current aspect of our culture and mentality today. We have not yet come to terms what happened on our doorstep; the facts remain astounding and distressing, despite attempts to memorialise the dead. But Holocaust denial and revision has shamefully hit the headlines yet again recently.

How can we remember?

I happened to watch the eminently-quotable The History Boys again on BBC Four a couple of weeks ago. One of Irwin's lines stuck in my head for its pertinence: 'The dead. The body count. We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault 'cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget," it's "lest we remember." That's what all this is about -- the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.'

And that is why Ken Livingstone, the various other Labour Party suspendees, and now Boris Johnson, need to pay attention to contemporary arts as well as to historical evidence if they want to avoid making ignorant and offensive remarks about the Nazis: the current cultural climate is telling us that we are at risk of losing our memories while wounds are still raw. It's not enough to commemorate the dead if the living are not respected. Well done Sadiq Khan for attending a Holocaust memorial service as his first act as Mayor of London. But there's more to be done. We need to respect and work with the living trauma that exists today across our communities.

We urgently need documentary films about events that took place in the 1940s, 50s and 60s globally and locally, now because of the threat to living memory. Soon we will only be able to document new information from the sons and daughters of the era. And if I can't even recall my actions or find my notebook from three years ago, what hope do we have on a national or international scale of remembering the past?