» Killer Images:Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence

Through a series of essays Killer Images explores different aspects of cinema’s relationship to violence – both as accomplice and as critic of political violence. This makes for an extremely interesting cutthrough various types of documentary filmmaking. We bring you an excerpt from the book below.


In 1914, Mexican bandit turned revolutionary, Pancho Villa, starred in an action movie called The Life of General Villa. The Mutual Film Corporation offered Villa $25,000 and 50 per cent of the film’s profits. Villa accepted, eager for the additional finance it brought to his campaign against the armies of Porfirio Diaz. The deal required that Pancho Villa fight his battles by daylight and in front of Mutual’s rolling cameras, and that he re-enact them if more footage was needed. In the words of the Mutual Film Corporation president, Villa agreed ‘to run his part of the insurrection for moving pictures, taking a prominent part himself’.  The film’s co-star was silent movie actor and future Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, who consequently had numerous cameos in several historic battles of the Mexican Revolution. (And although The Life of General Villa was the first and last movie that the film’s supervising producer, D. W Griffith, would make with the Mexican revolutionary, the very next year Griffith would cast Walsh as Lincoln’s assassin in Birth of a Nation.) The Life of General Villa opened in New York City within two months of the last battle Villa staged for the cameras.

In Sierra Leone, Rambo (1982) was a canonical text for Revolutionary United Front rebels 

Cinema has long shaped not only how political violence, from torture to warfare to genocide, is perceived, but also how it is performed. Today, when media coverage is central to terror campaigns, and newscasters serve as embedded journalists in the ‘war on terror’s televisual front, understanding how the moving image is implicated in the imagination and actions of perpetrators and survivors of mass violence is all the more urgent.

The cinematic image and mass violence on huge scales are two defining features of modernity. The possibilities and limits of that image in nonfiction film – as ‘witness’ to and ‘evidence’ of collective violence – have been central concerns of such filmmakers as Marcel Ophüls, Claude Lanzmann, and Rithy Panh, as well as the theoretical reflections on ‘post-traumatic cinema’ that their work has catalyzed (for example, Joshua Hirsch, Malin Wahlberg, Thomas Elsaesser, Janet Walker, E. Ann Kaplan, Tony Haggith, and Joanna Newman). Lanzmann’s film work, in particular, is marked by the conviction that the horror of such violence lies beyond cinematic imagination. However, one consequence of imagining the trauma of genocide as inevitably exceeding the cinematic image is to neglect the implication of that image in genocide itself. Often a cinematic imagination is directly implicated in the machinery of annihilation. The Nazi interdiction on any photographic trace of the extermination programme is as revealing of a cinematic consciousness attendant to genocide as their production of a false cinematic record to disguise the ‘final solution’ (consider, for instance, the propaganda film ‘documenting’ the contented life of Theresienstadt concentration camp prisoners, The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews (1944)).  

In the First Liberian Civil War, warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi (better known as ‘General Butt Naked’) would screen action movies to the young children he abducted to be soldiers. He showed actors getting killed in one film, and appearing again in another film. He told the children that when they kill people, they come to life again in another movie; that made it easier for the kids to kill.2 

In Sierra Leone, Rambo (1982) was a canonical text for Revolutionary United Front rebels, who borrowed their noms de guerre directly from Hollywood action films. As recently as 2002, Guantánamo torturers developing their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ looked no further than prime-time television for inspiration: Jack Bauer offered a treasure trove of techniques in his weekly torture of terrorists. 3And in North Sumatra, Indonesia, the army recruited its death squads during the 1965-66 ‘extermination of the communists’ from the ranks of self-described ‘movie theatre gangsters’ – thugs who controlled a black market in movie tickets, and who used the cinemas as a base for more serious criminal activity.

Cinema is often directly implicated in the imagination and machinery of mass violence

The army chose these men because they had a proven capacity for violence, and because they already hated the leftists for boycotting American films (the most popular, and profitable, in the cinemas). These killers explicitly fashioned themselves – and their methods of murder – after the Hollywood stars who were projected on the screens that provided their livelihood. Coming out of the midnight show, they describe feeling ‘just like gangsters who stepped off the screen’. In this heady mood, they strolled across the boulevard to their office and killed their nightly quota of prisoners, using techniques borrowed directly from movies. (This particular intersection of cinema and mass murder is the territory explored by Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing (2012), discussed in two contributions to this volume.)

Cinema is often directly implicated in the imagination and machinery of mass violence. Thus, if the cinematic image and mass violence are two defining features of modernity, the former is significantly implicated in the latter. The nature of this implication is this volume’s central focus. If the book’s chapters share a common starting point, it is that cinema offers unique opportunities to explore both the routines of violence as well as the rhetoric and imagination that begets violence. The contributions here engage with film and video projects that explore the perspectives of both perpetrators and survivors. They investigate cinema both as a tool for articulating histories of political violence, while at the same time analyzing how cinema itself can operate as an actor in these histories. […]

Serious Games, Immersion.

Serious Games, Immersion.

Harun Farocki’s recent project, Immersion (2009), documents the use of VR by the US Army as a therapeutic tool to help soldiers recover from post-traumatic stress upon their return from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers’ memories of what they experienced in the theatre of war (the violence they lived through) are re-staged with the help of a VR console game. In this form of exposure therapy, the soldiers are visually immersed in their experiences of violence and combat. Yet in a sinister twist, the identical mise-en-scène is used to desensitise pre-combat soldiers to the potentially traumatic impact of violence prior to their deployment. That the same moving images used to help individuals forget the trauma of war is also used to make soldiers more effective fighting machines is, again, an ironic corollary to Godard’s proposition that forgetting violence may be, in this case quite literally, part of the apparatus of violence.

IMMERSION (2009) 2 videos, colour, sound, 20 minutes (loop)

Harun Farocki

Exposé – text written in 2008 in advance of the production of Immersion

We are familiar with worlds of artificial imagery from computer games. We would like to show how they are used constructively in ways that go beyond self-contained, fictional universes: How they are used against the sobering backdrop of military reality, namely in the training of US troops before their deployment to combat zones, and in the provision of adequate post-deployment care on their return.

The possibilities presented by virtual reality offer obvious advantages when it comes to preparing soldiers for the difficult tasks awaiting them in often unfamiliar, exotic surroundings.

A hybrid of actual and virtual reality known as augmented reality is employed in the Advanced Simulator for Combat Operations and Training at Camp Pendletonin, California. In shadowy light, soldiers comb through plywood structures in front of projected backgrounds. They act out stressful situations in the studio and practise communication with the virtual inhabitants of the foreign country. The scenario can be modified at any time; it is controlled by a ‘director’ who can add imponderables and vicissitudes at will. Just as pilots of passenger aircraft use a flight simulator to practise flying at night or how to respond when they run into computer-programmed storm clouds, recruits practise what to do if they encounter injured persons when searching for a house and how to form a convoy when driving through the desert in enemy territory. The aim is the same: optimising responses to difficult situations.

Patients are literally immersed in the experiences they lived through during the war

Precisely the opposite happens when soldiers sustain injuries in the reality of Iraq and Afghanistan. They often only become aware of these much later, when what they have experienced leads them to react in ways they cannot control, with frequently fatal consequences, and the neural pathways formed in their brains cause them to return home as traumatised veterans. For those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a simple car trip can become a nightmare because they have witnessed vehicles blown up by bombs exploding under roads. A family outing to a crowded shopping mall can be sheer torment because it brings back memories of how a buddy at their side was fatally shot in a Baghdad market.

Albert Rizzo of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California in Marina del Rey has developed a new form of behavioural therapy for the treatment of war veterans suffering from PTSD. Using their accounts of what they experienced, the reality they lived through is recreated virtually in the console game Full Spectrum Warrior. The scenarios devised in the lab in California are then compared to the frame of reference, i.e. they are sent to the Iraq Combat Stress Control Team and submitted to a ‘reality check’.

The veterans are taken back to the time and place where they suffered the traumata now affecting them in ways beyond their control and relive the situation that triggered their disorder. In this form of exposure therapy, patients are literally immersed in the experiences they lived through during the war.

However, the traumatised soldiers do not have to face the situation alone: this time there is someone at their side – the therapist – who can intervene. For instance, the therapist can increase the level of threat and thus provide clients with the experience of coping successfully with a difficult situation.
Alternatively the therapist can use the Wizard of Oz, the game’s control unit, to modify the virtual reality so as to mitigate the situation, suspend it, or break it off altogether. The aim is to reprogramme the neural connections that have such a devastating effect on patients and help them come to terms with their trauma by facing the original situation that triggered it rather than remaining in denial. With this form of exposure therapy, Rizzo has succeeded in finding an effective means of treating deep emotional scars that break open repeatedly and uncontrollably and help patients find closure in reliving their traumatic experiences cathartically.

Rizzo and his co-workers have devised several ingenious modifications to the video game that enhance the therapy’s efficacy even further. The veteran wears a head-mounted display. The perspective of the images he sees on the data goggles changes in accordance with the position of his head and body, and the sounds he hears over the headphones – children screaming, fragments of words in Arabic, shrapnel exploding, rescue helicopters approaching – are spatially modulated. The low-frequency rumble of engines and explosions sends shudders through the platform he is standing on. Olfactory cues can be fed in, as well: the fragrant aroma of Arabic spices, the acrid odour of sweat, biting smoke of burning oilfields, the stench of singed hair. The ex-soldier holds a gun in his hand, just as he used to on the battlefield. But this weapon is not loaded; it is merely the ballast of the soldier’s reality, for Rizzo is convinced that revenge is not the way to come to terms with traumatic experiences.

During the sessions, patients are encouraged to put what they are experiencing and feeling into words. They are hooked up to various monitoring devices so the therapist can see the curves of the heartbeat, perspiration, brain activity, adrenalin output on his screen. The various peaks and troughs in the curves tell him to what degree patients are affected by what they are reliving at a particular moment. Simply by assuming this small degree of responsibility for the patient, the therapist takes part of the burden off the patient’s shoulders.

This is not the first time wartime experiences have been reconstructed using virtual reality. The method has been used in the past with Vietnam veterans and to treat 25,000 survivors of Portugal’s colonial wars in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau from 1961 to 1974. It has also been applied to help the traumatised witnesses of bus bombings in Israel and those who lived through the horrific attacks and collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Exposure therapy incorporating
virtual reality is also used to help people overcome more commonplace problems such as acrophobia, arachnophobia, social phobias, fear of flying, abnormal fear of pain during medical treatments and learning disorders.

We would like to give viewers an insight into how therapists succeed in making the imprint left in traumatised individuals’ brains by a real-life spatiotemporal experience recede,
replacing it with an artificial reconstruction of reality. The aim is to fade out the painful memories and involuntary mental images that cause such torment by using state-of-the-art technology to achieve a virtual reality that is as vivid and convincing as possible.

This new therapy developed by Albert Rizzo, Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Combat-related PTSD, is the focus of our documentary film.

In the fall of 2008, Rizzo will train military psychotherapists in Fort Lewis, Washington in the techniques of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Combat-related PTSD; the therapists will subsequently test the techniques on themselves.

The fact that theoretical instruction and practical application will be so closely linked and concentrated in a period of two days will allow us to elucidate the technical equipment, its use, and the approach employed in treatment without the need for explanatory comments or interviews as an aid to comprehension. The therapists learning the technique themselves will ask the questions required to understand the principles on which it is based and how it works. We will not need to add anything to the footage filmed on site; it will be self-explanatory because we are there each step of the way.

As we film the therapists and test subjects, we will use a scan converter (which is hooked up to VGA or DVI and interposed between the head-mounted display and a computer to simultaneously record the images the soldiers see on their display and the arousal curves (heartbeat, breathing rate, etc) the therapists see on their screen.

If possible, we would like to go beyond the laboratory situation by being present at three or four therapy sessions, even if we will not go into any details of individual stories and will not show the faces of those undergoing therapy to protect their privacy. Maintaining their anonymity is made easier by the fact that their features are obscured by the head-mounted display anyway – they are already wearing the ‘black bar’ on their faces, so to speak.

To render the principle of inversion, we will also show how virtual and augmented reality are used in the training of soldiers – as exemplified in Immersive Infantry Trainer and Advanced Simulator Combat Operations and Training.

To illustrate that this kind of therapy is not limited to use within the military, we will extend our observations to include ‘civilian applications’ such as its use in the treatment of acrophobia, arachnophobia and social phobias.

We will be filming with a crew of three people (director, Harun Farocki; camera/cinematography: Ingo Kratisch; sound: Matthias Rajmann). We will be using a high-speed camera so that we will not require any additional light sources. Our approach to documentary filmmaking means we never intervene in the situation, we simply allow it to unfold as (it would) if we were not there._

Director, scriptwriter: Harun Farocki
Research: Matthias Rajmann
From Killer Images, edited by Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer.
Copyright © 2013 Joram Ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.


Joram ten Brink is Professor of Film at the University of Westminster, where he is also the director of the Int. Centre for Production and Research of Documentary  and Experimental Film- Doc West. As a filmmaker, his films have been broadcast and theatrically released internationally, and his work has been screened at the Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals and at MoMA in New York. He is producer/executive producer on The Act of Killing (2012).

Harun Farocki was born in 1944 in Nový Jicin (Neutitschein), in the then German-annexed Czechoslovakia. From 1966-1968 he studied at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (West). He has several publications as author and editor and has been a visiting professor at Berkley, and later professor at the Academy for Fine Arts, Vienna. He has more than 100 TV, documentaries and essay films and solo exhibitions behind him, and in 2007 was at Documenta 12 with Deep Play.

Joshua Oppenheimer (b. USA 1974) was educated at Harvard and Central St. Martin’s, London. His award-winning films include The Globalisation Tapes (2003, co-directed with Christine Cynn) and The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1998). Based in Copenhagen and London, Oppenheimer is artistic director of the Centre for Documentary and Experimental Film at the University of Westminster, and has published widely on the themes of political violence and the public imagination.

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