“Not everything true is good”: Realism, reality, and representation in documentary filmmaking

Documentary filmmaking employs an array of techniques in order to build an impression of realism, with the goal of creating a convincing representation of reality that can lay claim to veracity. Two documentaries, Leviathan (directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) and The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous director, 2012), offer atypical approaches to the construction of reality, each playing with how realism is typically represented through technology and style. By infusing the objective dispassion of realism with sensorial and experiential subjectivity, and augmenting realism with fictional representation, these two films offer insight into the methods usually used by documentaries in creating an impression of reality, while presenting alternative paths to reaching the goal of supposed truth in filmmaking.

Leviathan opens with a grainy digital image showing vast pools of black, as what appear to be ocean waves lurch up and down in the frame; a brightening sky on the horizon is glimpsed but the environment remains otherwise alien. From the beginning, it’s unclear whose perspective the audience should identify with, as the shot compositions are so oddly angled they don’t register as a human’s point of view. With such abstract imagery sound becomes vital, and the film’s densely layered audio of clanging metal and distorted waves only adds to the unearthly ambience. From the blackness an enormous iron cube is pulled up from the depths. A pair of figures are performing some arcane task with heavy chains; they must be fishermen, and one of them is barking garbled, incomprehensible orders. Amid the cacophony, parts of the environment are seen, bright lights illuminating men grappling with medieval-looking equipment. The machinery has a strangely animal quality to it, and there is a sense that the fishermen are working with an unpredictable creature rather than a vessel that they are in control of. Over the side of the ship birds fly alongside in the darkness, as oily cables coil up from the sea, and an avalanche of fish is dumped on the ship’s deck.

From the opening scenes of “Leviathan”.

This is our introduction to Leviathan‘s otherworldly biosphere. The film was produced at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, a multi-disciplinary department run by Castaing-Taylor which “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography” to “explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world”1. The anthropologically- and environmentally-focused films produced at SEL share an experiential2 approach to presenting reality, using technology to reframe realism, approaching documentary filmmaking with “perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities”3. The importance of the “sensory” in their treatment of the ethnographic places Leviathan within the poetic mode of documentary filmmaking4, and yet there is a marked tension between the poetic and the observational, between the aesthetic and “the actual reality that was recorded”5. The presence of the two documentary forms alongside each other is deliberate, and Leviathan’s highly observational stance is built on the experiential and sensorial impressions of what the filmmakers observed while they were filming6.

For all its artistic abstraction, the film has a gritty immediacy that gradually distills into a sense of you-are-there, fly-on-the-wall realism. This is possible in large part due to the filmmakers’ decision to film using GoPro cameras, small, robustly constructed digital video recorders typically used in extreme sports for documenting intense first-person experiences. Audience familiarity with the aesthetic of the GoPro format — highly mobile camera movement and lower resolution digital imagery — links the technology to a visual style associated with “being there”. GoPro cameras have limited dynamic range, meaning there is a lack of information in the images they produce, and are particularly bad in low-light or night-time situations, leading to large areas of uniform black where a more capable camera would find greater detail. The wide-angle lens lacks depth of field, flattening the image and blurring the separation between individual elements in the frame. The crushed blacks and blown-out highlights of the camera’s images are familiar to anyone with an older cameraphone; such low-resolution imagery signifies to the audience that the material was recorded spontaneously, and that what occurred as well as the recording of it is authentic and lacks significant post-production manipulation.

As a result, many of Leviathan’s most audacious cinematographic flourishes paradoxically help to induce an impression of reality — despite a lack of establishing master shots or spatial orientation — employing a heightened realism that simultaneously edges towards surrealism. Cameras plunge into the waves, slosh around with severed fish heads, and are placed around the ship in such a way that the audience knows only a GoPro or similar could capture such images. The film’s unusual compositions are the result of having cameras small enough to be strapped to a fisherman’s arm or a chain hanging from the side of a ship; durable enough to survive freezing ocean waters and ricocheting shellfish; and inexpensive enough that an independent production wouldn’t be shut down were one of them lost or destroyed in the process of capturing such extraordinary footage.

The non-anthropocentric ecosystem of “Leviathan”.

New digital technology complicates the indexicality of documentary images as it once existed, and new methods of capturing both audio and visual material have changed audience expectations with regard to representations of reality7. “Realism” doesn’t mean what it used to, and Castaing-Taylor and Paravel aim to capture reality by focusing on the sensory and experiential register of what happened in front of the camera. This goes against the traditional view that scientific films require the minimising of authorial voice to maintain “an aura of objectivity”8, and that “the voice of science demands silence, or near silence, from documentarian or photographer”9. Leviathan was embroiled in a wider controversy around documentary films that use expressive cinematic techniques; Michael Unger dismisses the criticism that they “short-circuit [the] supposed link to unmediated knowledge”. Quoting Bill Nichols, Unger argues for the importance of affect, of “gaining a sense of what it feels like to see and experience the world in a particular, poetic way”10. Leviathan’s use of digital technology allows the filmmakers to play with the impression of reality they create, while questioning audience expectations for realism with an aesthetic experience that is “highly technological and experiential, eschewing transparency in favour of embodied sensations”11. The film pushes the pro-filmic into the realm of the uncanny, simultaneously defining and destabilising its sense of reality; because the footage is raw and immediate, it creates a sensation of veracity, and yet the supposed reality of the world we see onscreen is unfamiliar and bizarre. Blood, seawater, and viscera splashing on the lens, the queasy heaving of stormy seas, and the unflinching violence of fish being butchered, all contribute to an immediacy that underscores the impression of reality, and yet the stylised presentation of this reality avoids typical realism in establishing its documentary authenticity for the audience.

This deliberately destabilised visual perspective connects to the film’s thematic concerns, which present an ecosystem of which humans are merely one, albeit dominant, part. The film’s industrial fishing trawler is shown to be at the centre of a food chain that includes birds scavenging the easily accessible fish that humans drag to the surface. Unusually for nature documentaries, Leviathan neither situates itself with the human perspective of the audience, nor does it anthropomorphise the non-human. The fishermen we see on screen are presented partially, their faces obscured and their voices unintelligible, and the film’s extreme close-ups make it difficult to identify them as people. They are as alien and unknowable as the myriad other lifeforms we encounter, a fact underscored by the film’s closing credits, where the various animal species are named alongside humans in the cast list. The film frequently submerges the viewer without warning underwater, eradicating the boundary between above and below, and presenting a reality that calls into question whose environment we are really witnessing. This lack of a typical point of identification for the audience is a key method by which the filmmakers play with realism as a way to depict reality; many of the shots undoubtedly offer an impression of realism, but also cause us to question whose reality we are experiencing. The film offers an unexpectedly complicated view of the ostensibly uncomplicated world of deep-sea fishing, more familiar perhaps from TV docu-dramas such as Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch (which makes an ironic appearance late in Leviathan). By erasing the simplified human narratives of that TV programme, and refusing to offer an anthropocentric viewpoint to orient the audience, Leviathan upends reality TV’s self-professed “realism”, replacing the familiar with an ambiguous reality.

Fantasy overtakes history in “The Act of Killing”.

Using different methodologies, and with different goals, The Act of Killing similarly plays with realism and surrealism, as well as outright artifice, in its construction of something resembling reality. Filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, assisted by an anonymous Indonesian director, mix participatory documentary with a fictional “mise en abyme of performativity and reality”, presenting a complex collage for the audience to assemble into an impression of historical truth12. The film simultaneously documents its protagonists’ efforts to shore up their own version of reality through their creation of a completely artificial narrative — a fiction film made with the help and encouragement of Oppenheimer — that allows them to continue living in the fantasy they have constructed for themselves. The protagonists, most notably Anwar Congo, the principal focus of The Act of Killing’s narrative, were members of death squads responsible for the massacre of up to a million people in the Indonesian Communist Purge of the mid-1960s. They now enjoy a comfortable position in Indonesian society, supported and respected by government officials and institutions, and free to unapologetically lord it over the marginalised families of those they butchered in the past. The fantasy of denial they have created for themselves is presented as a kind of narcotic avoidance of reality, necessary for them to escape facing up to the atrocities they committed in their youth. Thanks to their social standing, the fantasy that Anwar and his colleagues have created has replaced historical reality as the national narrative, and must be accepted by the rest of Indonesian society, which is presented as fearfully playing along with the pantomime. The Act of Killing attempts to address how reality can be epistemologically established when fantasy is installed in place of truth; by introducing overt fiction and performance in its quest for historical accuracy, the film suggests that an impression of realism is by itself insufficient to delineate reality.

Anwar and his colleagues started as “movie theatre gangsters”, and the artifice of Hollywood genre films provides the entry point to The Act of Killing’s attempt to construct reality. Oppenheimer’s decision to get Anwar and his fellow gangsters to recreate their crimes by making a Western-Gangster-Musical — to “reanimate their memories and dreams of the murders [they committed] by making an autobiographical film” — means that The Act of Killing’s route to reality passes through fiction13. However, Oppenheimer’s documenting of the filmmaking process presents an impression of realism that works in tandem with Anwar’s garish, surreal reenactments, allowing Oppenheimer to access and contextualise deeper truths uncovered through making the fictional film. Historical reality is reached through a combination of realism and performative fiction; Thomas Patrick Pringle notes how the film’s combination of “realist anthropology” and “the storytelling forms that shape our perception of the material world” results in “an affective ethnography of a traumatic historical event”14.

Indeed, The Act of Killing’s subject matter is such that the typical approaches of documentary filmmaking – such as didactic realism – are insuficient to present the film’s reality. Documentary modes and visual technology condition audience perception, and to break free of the “habit-forming” processes of documentaries, such as “rhetorical editing, cinematography and aesthetics”, a new direction was required15. However, some of the film’s supposedly ethnographic documentation itself exemplifies the manipulation involved in constructing reality using the conventions of realism. There are chronological inconsistencies with Anwar’s changing hair colour, which undermines the supposed linear trajectory of the protagonist’s moral progression16. Similarly, a key conversation between Anwar and Adi Zulkadry, a colleague from the death squads, filmed while they fish and shot according to the conventions of documentary realism, displays an inauthenticity through its editing that undercuts the supposed reality of the scene17.

Staging memories in “The Act of Killing”.

Realism collides with fiction again when we witness a state TV talkshow where Anwar and his fellow gangsters are lauded for their murders; there is some uncertainty over whether this seemingly real programme was in fact broadcast or is merely part of Anwar’s fantasy18. The film’s protagonists repeatedly allude to constructing the reality of their world; Anwar, watching a particularly gruesome scene from his fictional movie that recreates an alleged real-life incidence of cannibalism, reflects:

“Imagine, if the film suddenly ended with this scene, people will think this is my bad karma. But if this is the beginning, then all the sadistic things I do next will be justified by the sadism here. Totally justified!”

Here he is speaking of events that he openly admits occurred, and is cannily aware of how his manipulations could alter the narrative of those events. Adi, who boasts of torturing, beheading, and murdering countless victims, including his then-girlfriend’s father, defiantly rejects the validity of objective reality by declaring:

“War Crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition. […] And more important, not everything true is good. Some truths are not good. […] Even if everything you’re [Oppenheimer] finding out is true, it’s not good.”

This evident manipulation of truth ultimately pollutes the relationship between the impression of realism presented in The Act of Killing and the reality we are expected to believe. Even the authenticity of the Anwar’s supposed remorse at the film’s conclusion, where he cathartically dry-heaves as the memories of his past actions overwhelm him, has been questioned, with the redemptive convenience for Anwar himself being noted in a scene that explicitly puts forward its filmic realism as representing reality19. Ultimately, The Act of Killing’s conflation of realism with fantastical performance blurs any trustworthy impression of reality, but in so doing it reflects the mechanisms by which historical reality can be distorted in favour of manufactured narratives.

Both Leviathan and The Act of Killing explore subjective interpretations of reality and play with impressions of realism in constructing that reality. Each film deconstructs the efficacy of realism by destabilising the implicit trust audiences place in the conventions of documentary filmmaking. This is acheived in part by making use of the aesthetics and language associated with various film technologies and media forms in order to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. However, by highlighting the artificiality of documentary realism, and welcoming the experiential, the sensory, and the performative, both films suggest new avenues for capturing the truth of reality.

Reconstructing an impression of reality in “The Act of Killing”.


  1. Sensory Ethnography Lab.
  2. Unger 14. Quoting filmmaker Donigan Cumming, Unger uses the term “experiential” as a more committed alternative to “experimental” when discussing documentary, emphasising the value of lived experience over post-facto rhetoric, and placing the filmmaker more directly within the context of what they seek to document.
  3. Sensory Ethnography Lab.
  4. Bill Nichols identified a set of modes that are often used when discussing the various approaches, ideologies, and flavours of documentary films. As the classification suggests, films in the poetic mode often take a more lyrical, abstract, or impressionistic approach to subject matter, while films in the observational mode aim to recreate an apparently unmediated sense of being in the moment depicted. Usually these two forms would seem to be opposites, the former presenting an artistic view of an event as a particular filmmaker would have you experience it, and the latter pretending there is no filmmaker and that watching the film is as close as it gets to actually being there.
  5. Russell 30.
  6. Unger 9.
  7. Unger 11.
  8. MacDonald 970.
  9. Nichols, 2001: 85.
  10. Unger 3-4.
  11. Russell 29.
  12. Wijaya 85.
  13. Pringle 25.
  14. Pringle 25.
  15. Pringle 26.
  16. Tiwon 202.
  17. Pringle 33-34.
  18. Nichols 2014: 26.
  19. Nichols 2014: 27.


  • Leviathan. Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. United States / France / United Kingdom. Sensory Ethnography Lab, 2012.
  • The Act of Killing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous. Denmark / Norway / United Kingdom. Final Cut for Real, 2012.


  • MacDonald, Scott. “Up Close and Political: Three short ruminations on Ideology in the Nature film”. The Documentary Film Reader, edited by Johnathan Kahana. Oxford University Press, 2016. pp 969-983.
  • Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Nichols, Bill. “Irony, Cruelty, Evil (and a Wink) in The Act of Killing”. Film Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2. University of California Press, 2014. pp. 25-29
  • Pringle, Thomas Patrick. “Documentary Animism: Material Politics and Sensory Ethics in The Act of Killing (2012)”. Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 67, No. 3-4. University of Illinois Press, 2015. pp 24-41.
  • Russell, Catherine. “Leviathan and the Discourse of Sensory Ethnography: Spleen et idéal”. Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 31 Number 1. The American Anthropological Association, 2015. pp 27-34.
  • “Sensory Ethnography Lab”. http://sel.fas.harvard.edu/index.html
  • Tiwon, Sylvia. “Lust of the Eye: The Act of Killing and Aesthetic Sensibility”. Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 46 Issue 1, 2014. pp 200-203.
  • Unger, Michael A. “Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s GoPro Sensorium: Leviathan (2012), Experimental Documentary, and Subjective Sounds”. Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 69, No. 3. University of Illinois Press, 2017. pp 3-18
  • Wijaya, Elizabeth. “To See Die, Again: The Act of Filming and The Act of Killing”. Parallax, Vol. 22 Number 1. Routledge, 2016.