Documenting the human being: Film characters in 2013

film character the act of killingQuick quiz: Who were the most indelible film characters from 2013? Don’t think about it too long. That’s the whole idea behind being indelible. The character stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled. 2013 was a good year for film, and there were lots of good characters. In order to save time, I will stipulate that any of the twenty Oscar-nominated actors portrayed memorable characters (though I don’t really believe that.) In addition, I think of Keller Dover (Prisoners) and Oscar Grant (Fruitvale Station), Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt) and Adele (Blue is the Warmest Color), John (Blue Caprice) and Marie (The Past – all right, who am I kidding, everyone in The Past. I’m a sucker for Farhadi.) I don’t doubt you can think of many others.

But for me, there’s no question who the most compelling on-screen character was in 2013. It was Anwar Congo, proud and effective Indonesian government worker in the mid-1960s. The fact that his “work” was to torture and execute communists and ethnic Chinese provides the basic dramatic conflict for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Congo recounts what most of us would consider atrocities with a combination of banality and pride, like a philatelist showing off his stamp collection. He seems so brainwashed by western culture, especially western film, that he cannot distinguish on-screen blood from the real thing. And yet, Anwar Congo has seen the real thing up close in a way that almost no one else has. By the end of the film, the ghosts begin to speak to him and the seemingly hard shell exterior begins to crack. It is riveting cinema, and he is a character I won’t soon forget.

In second place on my indelible character list is Magdy Ashour – family man, Muslim Brotherhood member, Egyptian revolutionary – from Jehane Noujaim’s The Square. To a Westerner, Ashour may be the most important character captured on film in a very long time. He is a passionate member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is also independent enough to question their edicts when he feels they have gone too far. He is willing to fight for what he believes in. He is also willing to accept that those who disagree with him may have legitimate points of view. And he struggles with the moral imperative to protest for change while recognising the practical damage such protests may create for him and his family. In other words, Magdy Ashour is a complex, realistic human being, smart and kind-hearted – a devout Muslim character that is almost never represented in Western cinema.

film character the squareThe fact that both of these characters come from documentaries is not terribly surprising. In fact, somewhere in my top 10 would also be Kai Greene, roughly taking on the Lou Ferrigno role in Vlad Yulin’s documentary Generation Iron. Documentary film, long thought of as the Brussels sprouts of the film world, has undergone a remarkable resurgence in the past twenty-five years. Whether you love him or hate him, Michael Moore has been the primary reason for this. Beginning with Roger & Me (1989), Moore has shown you can make documentaries that are entertaining, controversial, and, most importantly, profitable. You may prefer your Kopples and Wisemans and Maysles. But Moore moved the industry so that now financing a documentary, and then getting it distributed, is not quite the Herculean task it once was. Since this coincided with the proliferation of media outlets (home video, cable, online…), we now have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documentary choices.

By 2013, this has led to an interesting, and potentially troubling, phenomenon, which was on display at this year’s Oscars. To understand what is happening, we have to go back twenty years. That was when Steve James’ magnificent documentary Hoop Dreams was denied an Oscar nomination despite overwhelming critical and popular support. It turns out that the relatively cloistered group of documentary voters was manipulating the voting process to help their favourites. The mindset was that a movie like Hoop Dreams (1994), with its popular, accessible subject and lots of media attention, didn’t need the publicity boost that an Oscar would provide. Voters viewed their job as promoting movies that most people would otherwise never hear of, as opposed to honouring the highest achievement. The movie that won the Oscar that year, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, is a good movie. In my opinion, it is nowhere near as good as Hoop Dreams.

film character generation ironThe revamped system has tended to place more popular movies in a more favourable position. And so, in the past ten years, we have seen films like Bowling for Columbine (2002), March of the Penguins (2005), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Man on Wire (2008), Searching for Sugar Man (2012), and this year’s 20 Feet from Stardom take the prize. I do not for one minute mean to suggest that any of these films were not worthy of recognition, nor do I want to re-fight old battles when my opinions may have differed with those of the Academy voters. 20 Feet from Stardom is an extremely well-made and entertaining movie. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, among others, are all wonderful characters. But there is no way I will remember them the way I will remember Anwar Congo and Magdy Ashour. I was not nearly as emotionally involved in their stories as I was in those of Congo and Ashour. I strongly suspect I will not remember 20 Feet from Stardom over time as vividly as I will remember The Act of Killing or The Square, much in the same way that 24 years later I can remember Oscar also-ran Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House far more than I can recall the 1991 winner In the Shadow of the Stars – essentially 20 Feet from Stardom set in the world of opera.

This isn’t really about the Oscars. After all, there are many people who couldn’t care less about what movie wins an award. I think the Oscars merely reflect this paradox. As more and more documentaries make it to the screen, it becomes harder for any one documentary to stand out. And as producers begin to see some documentaries as money-makers, they naturally ask why all documentaries can’t be money-makers. Thus, the big-name movies, movies with Al Gore or adorable penguins, or Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, seem to more easily dominate the field, sucking up all the oxygen that the plethora of smaller films are fighting for. And that’s unfortunate. Because as much as I enjoy Bruce and Mick, I think all of us, not just documentary fans, could benefit from seeing Magdy Ashour and Anwar Congo.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

12 thoughts on “Documenting the human being: Film characters in 2013

  1. Yesterday, while my wife was brushing upon her shakespeare, I asked her what she thought was an important thing modern writers could learn from the great dramatist. “How to write characters!” she answered. I agreed with her, and then I read your article, which confirmed our position. Of all the characters in film 2013, the only ones you mention as having memorable characters are documentaries, and the characters are real people, not characters at all. It is a sad state of affairs when none of the working screenwriters can come up with anything but variations of generic types. There are no Hamlets,Iagos,King Lears, or Romeos in today’s movies. Just the Gay Best Friend, the good-hearted prostitute, the wrongly accused, the sociopath who is actually a nice guy underneath it all, and the dull businessman whose youth is restored by a free-spirited girl. Wait, there are more, but they are just as tired as those already mentioned. That aside, thank you for another fine piece of thoughtful writing from Jonathan Eig.

    • Thanks Bill. I wouldn’t necessarily look to Shakespeare (or Ibsen or Williams, for that matter) for character comparisons to film. Film is a different medium, more dependent on externalized action than dialogue. Live theater is the opposite. For me, even above average film versions of Shakespeare don’t have the same character resonance as strong stage versions (though they do offer other pleasures.) I agree there is paucity of epic character in current American film; characters who aim for the stars and wrestle with elemental issues on a grand scale. They do exist, in the films of P.T. Anderson, for instance, and they often seem to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The way in which a Daniel Plainview or a Bill Cutting stands out may well be testament to that paucity. But for me, there are many films that offer lower case characters of interesting complexity, characters who struggle with everyday issues in a nuanced, emotionally involving manner. Olivia Wilde’s young single woman in the low-boil Drinking Buddies comes to mind. Not nearly as big and bold and indelible as the real life Anwar Congo, but a fine portrait nonetheless..

      • Jon, I disagree wholeheartedly. it is character that has defined film from the beginning, and only in the past few decades since the degeneration of the medium via Spielberg and his acolytes that character has been de-emphasized. You mention Williams as having little relevance to film. Without him and the other great mid-twentieth century playwrites, we would have had no actor’s studio, from which was created the backbone of North american film acting. A major reason we had such superior actors in the 50’s -60’s was the wealth of characters for them to play. Where would Brando be without Stanley Kowalski, Newman without Brick Pollitt, or Geraldine page without Alexandra del lago? In addition to williams, there was ONeil (Long Days Journey into Night) Albee (Who’s Afraid of virginia Woolf) Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) Inge (Come Back Little Sheba) to add to the gallery of characters in motion pictures. And in more recent years,many of today’s most accomplished actors, including John Malkovich, Willem Defoe, Joan Allen, and William H Macy, come from the stage. Then there are the dozens of film characters that come from literature: Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Jean Valjean,Captain Ahab, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, Dracula, Lestat, Dr, Jeckyll and Mr.Hyde, Terry Malloy, Michael Corleone, and so many others. Today, so many novice writers dream of writing a screenplay, and succeed by following templates of mediocrity into which they squeeze their own life experiences rather than create memorable characters and original stories. it has become so bad that the average moviegoer haslost the ability to follow a plot line that goes outside the arc of sceenwriting 101. Proof of this is the incomprehension thatmetone of the best movies of the last decade, The Ballad of jack and Rose, writtten and directed by Arthur Miller’s daughter. ..and the awarding of best screenplay oscar in 2011 to the atrociously written Django Unchained. Screenwriters have a damn lot to learn about character from Shakespeare and other literary giants. if they dont start learning fast, we lose not only the centrality of character to story, but the art of acting itself, because there will be no characters to play, only caricatures to inhabit.

        • I may have been mistakenly interpreting your first post, Bill. I’d suggest that current screenwriters like Steve Zaillian, Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman are at least roughly comparable to Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and John Huston. But the overall product has deteriorated. I see American film in a rather long slow decline dating from the early 1970s, when screenwriters like Robert Towne and James Toback were mainstream, to today, when they would be writing for indies. There has been an inversion of the classic Poetics template. Plot and Character are no longer the first two categories on the list, as Aristotle once described. Since Jaws and Star Wars blew up the universe, Spectacle has risen to the top of the list to the detriment of old-fashioned story-telling. But I don’t quite fear for the future of storytelling to the same extent that you do. As film screenwriters have struggled, television writers, in a medium not as beholden to the blockbuster, have flourished, and the work being created across a wide swath of TV genres gives me hope that whatever trend film may be stuck in, it is ultimately reversible. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

  2. You make valid points about the film choices for awards Jon, and I agree with what you say about them. I haven’t seen that much new stuff this year, so cannot add any characters. However, like LV, I feel that I must get around to seeing ‘The Act Of Killing’, as I have read so many excellent reviews about it.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I sometimes find that when I hear something talked up so much, it can’t possibly live up to my expectations. But I think The Act of Killing can hold its own.

  3. There is no denying that Ashour and Congo are both tremendous characters, even we cannot easily identify with the latter. Also, good commentary on documentaries in general. I don’t have enough information to know how much I agree or disagree, but it was a fun read.

    The characters I most remember? Wadjda and her mother. Solomon Northup. Oscar Grant. Short Term 12’s Grace. Ginger and Rosa’s Ginger. And The Hunt’s Lucas.

    • Thanks. The Hunt allows me to mention how good a year it was for child actors. Mads Mikkelsen was obviously the key to the movie, but Vinterberg got an excellent performance out of Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl Klara, which helps make the story work. I think she was the youngest, but there were a number of other very strong child characters this year.

  4. definitely agree with you about anwar congo! a grandfather who is a murderer; apathetic yet emotional; so real, but feels so fictive – i think these contradictions are what made him so difficult to categorize and indelible.

    my second character would be frances from frances ha.

  5. the older I get, the more the Oscars just seem like one big farce… though I admit that sometimes they are useful for directing me to films that I would otherwise have overlooked. I’ve certainly heard a lot about “The Act of Killing” – I think it’s high time I finally watched it. Wanted to take a break after “12 Years.”

    • I think the Oscars and the Independent Spirit awards were virtually identical this year, at least in the major categories. That probably says something, though I’m not sure what

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