The Activist Documentary and its Strenuous Quest to the Absolute Truth. Arica // Verzió X ELTE

The object of truth is regarded as indispensable in the creation of activist documentaries.

As stated by Barry Collins, documentary films are recognized as “superior to fiction films because of their pretension to monopolize the market of the truth” (p. 68). Filmmakers are therefore constantly challenged to arrive at an objective judgment, whilst incorporating their creative vision in storytelling. To adopt a role of a passionate activist and a rational narrator, numerous modes of cinematic techniques and languages are effectively used to testify the director’s commitment to truthfulness in Human Rights cinema. In the activist documentary, Arica (2020), Lars Edman and William Johansson Kalén’s introduction of different shot types, spectatorships, and raw material appear as a crucial strategy in promoting transparency. These elements allow for the film to be recognized as a “moving and powerful court drama” – a harmonious orchestration between facts and art (Laika Film & Television). It is, thereby, important to explore the aforementioned elements in order to answer the primary question: “What kind of tools and techniques are used to present the objective truth in Lars Edman’s and William Johansson’s documentary Arica?”

Arica, as a documentary, attempts to demonstrate the direct impact of toxic contamination on the local residents of the Chilean Arica. To vividly and accurately visualize the severe consequences, various shot types and filming methods were used. First, the film often incorporates long shots and birds eye-view to precisely map out the spatial layout of the environment: the “Sica Sica” and other housing areas near the power-plant in Arica (Rouch, p. 40). The use of this particular shot type significantly facilitates an accurate visualization of the city, thus allowing viewers to understand how the toxic waste was discarded in close proximity to the residential areas, which further raises great ethical concerns. Second, the film also illustrates the extent of “cinéma vérité” – the shooting techniques that project the truth in movement (Collins, p. 70). The cameraman walks with the camera throughout the affected area, exhibiting the hand-held quality, which allows viewers to first-handedly experience the film as a direct observer. This pure form of mobility “strengthens this film-forms ability to tell the truth” (Collins, p. 69). Third, the film’s precision to details can be observed in the recurring use of close-ups. The enlarged shots enable the film to capture the torment of the toxic waste on the human body, depicting scars, disfigurations, and disabilities of the victims; they serve as crucial evidence to support the directors’ claims and investigation in Arica. Thereby, the unification of various shooting techniques indisputably contributes to an in-depth understanding of Arica – its geography, people, and culture.

The view of Arica (Arica, Lars Edman and William Johansson Kalén, 2020)

Concerning the object of ‘truth’, “Arica” does not only concentrate on the operation of the camera, but also introduces radical forms of spectatorship. The film incorporates a diverse selection of subjects involved in the incident, ranging from key ex/directors Boliden (the accused perpetrators), the citizens of Arica (the victims), lawyers and professors (the specialists) (Laika Film & Television). The aforementioned strategy demonstrates a balanced perspective, thus allowing spectators to observe and understand specific opinions from various subjects in an objective manner. Besides the traditional method of interviewing key figures, the film also invites the ex-director of Boliden, Rolf Svedberg, to revisit the local site in Arica in order to reveal the aftermath of Boliden’s toxic disposal after his approval of the project in 1981 (Laika Film & Television). Although this practice of ‘re-enactment’ is heavily criticized as a fictional element of ‘staging’ which interrupts the objective of presenting the absolute truth in documentaries, it can be argued that ‘re-enactment’ can be used effectively to provide a broader explanation on the case (Collins, p. 75). For instance, Svedberg’s re-enactment of his past actions, to an extent, illuminates ‘validity’ as he provided confirmation to what he exactly did on site, as well as tracing the exact location that he visited himself. Unequivocally, the presentation of opposing views and re-enactment can be perceived as a directorial method to encourage transparency and eliminate subjective interpretations of the event in spectatorship.

Lars Edman and Rolf Svedberg 

A close examination of different shooting modes and spectatorship proposed by Arica explicitly reveals the documentary investigative nature. It is, therefore, significantly critical to discuss the directors’ engagement with the archived raw materials in the film. The film provides Rolf Svedberg’s photographs of Site-F from his excursion in the 1980s, Lars Edman’s footage from Toxic Playground, and various legal documents used during the Swedish trials (Laika Film & Television). This evidence was used to demonstrate the cause-effect chain, comparing the starting point of the problem before revealing its aftermath. Thus, the chronological organization and analysis of raw materials demonstrate logical reasoning and informative explanation to the narrative. Nevertheless, the documentary also brings in authenticity by revealing a relatively minimal amount of manipulation to the raw footage. For instance, the film exhibits aspects of the filming process and the interview, specifically capturing Edman’s with his cinematic equipment at the site. This exposure of the film’s production allows Arica to be recognized as a Search Documentary “which concerns the film-maker’s personal search for the truth behind a particular human rights issue” (Collins, p. 67). The use of informative materials and the demonstration of the directors’ investigative process collectively allow the film to achieve a truthful portrayal of Arica.

In conclusion, Arica as a documentary exhibits a complex form of narration through the director’s introduction of different shot types, spectatorships, and raw material. These cinematic elements to a great degree allow the documentary to achieve the absolute objective of Human Rights cinema: to raise awareness and conquer impartiality (Collins, p. 67). It is, therefore, crucial for spectators to reflect upon the duality - facts and the director’s creative intervention – which exists altogether in contemporary activist documentaries.


Chenika Wongsechareon
ELTE Film Studies MA


Acclaimed 'Arica' Documentary Prompts Intervention from United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Laika Film & Television,
Collins, Barry. “Human Rights Cinema: The Act of Killing and the Act of Watching.” An Interdisciplinary Journal of Law and Justice, vol. 14, 2017, p.65-86.
Rouch, Jean. “The Camera and Man.” Studies in Visual Communication, vol. 1, no. 1, 1974, p. 40.