Provocative Engagement: documentary audiences and performances in The Act of Killing and the Look of Silence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Through an analysis of documentary audiences for The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), this article explores the idea of provocative engagement as a way of extending our understanding of the affective dimensions of documentary and its role in civic engagement. The study draws on qualitative empirical research, based on interviews with the filmmaker, and interviews with fifty-two viewers in four different countries and cultures (Denmark, Sweden, Japan and Colombia). This data is used to explore the idea of subjectivity in documentary through the performance of memory, power and impunity in both films that are concerned with the perpetrators and victims of the Indonesian genocide of 1965. The analysis shows how a subjective documentary style provokes intensive modes of engagement, in particular with the performance of memory and violence that engenders ethical shock and moral ambiguity amongst audiences. Crucially, the research demonstrates how the contexts of engagement matter, as the symbolic power of the films shifts in different reception contexts. For Scandinavian audiences, there is an engagement with the films as cultural and moral resources to perform as self-reflexive citizens in democratic societies. Japanese audiences engage with the style and moral ambiguity of the films, and at the same time question Western perspectives on Asian political struggle, and reflect on the risks of remembering traumatic histories for victims and their families. Colombian audiences have a raw engagement with the films as shocking and surreal, reminding young citizens of injustice and their continuing struggle for peace in a country scarred by war. Overall, our analysis highlights how performance documentary challenges the affective relationships between filmmakers and their audiences, and in this particular case we see a type of raw, provocative engagement with the act of documenting genocide, the act of watching, and what this means to people in the context of their political and lived realities.


External organisations
  • University of Westminster
  • Malmö University
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Media Studies


  • audience studies, documentary, memory, performance
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)662-677
JournalInternational Journal of Cultural Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Jul 17
Publication categoryResearch