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The Great Train Robbery


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For such a short little movie, shot on video in 1986, Indoctrination offers a lot to think about.

The movie summarizes a conference in which a dozen German businessmen learn how to sell themselves. If you were to stumble upon this video, you might think it was simply recorded for the posterity of the teacher. But if you knew that the title were “Indoctrination,” you might appreciate it as someone’s political statement. And if you were to read about it first, learning that it was made by sometimes-cryptic, often-respected filmmaker Harun Farocki, you might look even closer to see if it might pass for art.

Layer Cake

Appreciate Indoctrination on three different levels
Appreciate Indoctrination on three different levels

The students learn public speaking skills, body language, posture, strategy, and tactics. Some of their lessons seem like common sense, while others seem like manipulation and trickery. For example, they are taught to use “we” to sound inclusive and positive, and to use “one” or “someone” to soften criticism. Instead of admitting you haven’t finished running all the numbers, boast that you have made a good start.

At the lowest level, where you simply watch the proceedings as though you were attending the conference, the movie is very well paced. It compresses a week of instruction into less than an hour, and if you want to pick up some pointers on how to present your self in business, you will find this an enriching documentary without being too detailed.

At the next level, where you skeptically view the proceedings as though they are “indoctrination” the film works very well, too. The teacher is rapid-fire, in tight control, and always on alert. He makes the occasional off-color joke, but it’s a roomful of men (no women), so perhaps he’s trying to maintain his alpha position. On the first day, the teacher chooses a student to be his scapegoat, and no matter what the victim does, the teacher leads the class in viewing him as the dumb, uncooperative one with the bad attitude. Is the teacher aware that the choosing a victim makes the other students more cooperative and receptive? Whether or not, it’s a fascinating picture of a power play by someone whose business is power.

I found myself forgetting that I was supposed to be skeptical and actually learning the techniques of influencing others. The “indoctrination” was so effective that, even knowing I was supposed to remain detached, I found myself influenced by it.

But Is It Art?

The third level — the level at which we ask whether this short video is art — is interesting to ponder, and the fact that we can even ask the question with a straight face seems to imply that Indoctrination is at least halfway there.

If it is art, there is more to it than simply slapping a provocative title on a cheap video. It’s also a matter of editing four days of material into 45 thematically coherent minutes. Did Farocki carefully choose to play up the alpha-male/scapegoat drama? Did he choose only the most gimmicky-seeming techniques? How carefully did he choose his angle and distance when shooting the video? Given the same raw footage, what would a “straight” documentarian have done with it?

I’m not familiar enough with Farocki’s work to render a final judgment on Indoctrination. It may be art, or maybe Farocki really did simply slap a provocative title on a cheap video.

In either case, it’s such a short film, so easy to watch, with so much post-movie resonance, that I can’t help but recommend it.

Perhaps I was indoctrinated.