Film critic Karina Longworth is reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
The best, most daring and form-defying documentaries in the world right now are being funded by the Danish Film Institute, and so it goes that the nonfiction knockout of TIFF thus far is The Act of Killing — made with Danish support and directed by American Joshua Oppenheimer, executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.
Hot on the heels of the US premiere of The Ambassador, like Mads Brugger’s film Killing uses performance and fictionalization to lay bare shocking truths about the flow of power in a third-world state, but Oppenheimer’s moving, horrifying, ethically problematic film couldn’t possibly have higher stakes. A testament: one of the producers and co-directors, and most of the Indonesian production staff, are listed in the credits as “Anonymous.”
Early onscreen titles brief us on the genocide of “communists” (actual and accused), dissidents and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in 1965-66. Many of the perpetrators of the over 1 million murders are still alive, and are held up in contemporary Indonesia as heroes, featured on daytime talk shows and honored as the godfathers of an enormously powerful paramilitary organization. “When we met the killers,” reports the titles, “they proudly told us stories about what they did.” Director Oppenheimer offered the now-aged war criminals the opportunity to dramatize their memories of the massacres for his cameras, an offer that these “movie theater gangsters,” who started out selling tickets to Hollywood films on the black market and picked up execution techniques from “Marlon Brando and Al Pacino” movies, cannot refuse.
“This is who we are,” says top executioner Anwar Congo, proudly, without a shred of shame or remorse. “We must tell the story of what we did when we were young.” The Act of Killing combines these filmed sequences with documentation of how they came together, and of how the gangsters-turned-stars and directors respond to the process of turning their real, movie-influenced atrocities back into “entertainment.”
Congo frequently notes that the Indonesian word for “gangster” is derived from the words for “free men,” and clearly, in his mind, the justification for the killings comes from a distortion of the Cold War-era West’s notion of freedom, of capitalist free will over “communist” oppression. The Act of Killing never mentions Indonesia’s role in the global economy (Oppenheimer covered that in his previous film, The Globalisation Tapes), but the clear subtext is that this country that allowed and even celebrates these horrors is a place that the West helped to invent, directly through political aid (the massacres were facilitated and/or cheered on by US agencies as a Cold War victory), and less directly through our need for cheap manufacturing (GM just announced plans to build a new plant there) and through our cultural exports. The gangsters, who stage their dramatizations through the using of genres ranging from noir to Westerns to musicals, see Oppenheimer’s project, at least in part, as a way to finally become the movie stars they’ve emulated, and also do the Hollywood films that they love one better; as one executioner proudly notes, “No film has ever used our method” of killing. Certainly, their lived experiences give their performances that Method actors Brando and Pacino would, er, kill for.
Killing is more than a bit over-long, and it so sags in the middle that you start to worry that these “free men” have been given too much freedom by the documentarian, that in giving them enough rope to hang themselves (so to speak), the director is also enabling the horrific glorification the thugs crave. But then one of the killers begins to be changed by the process. In one crucial scene, he even claims to have come to understand the fear his victims felt through acting their parts. Off-camera, Oppenheimer carefully yet pointedly tells his subject that he’ll never really know that fear just by participating an exercise that he knows is constructed, which he knows he’ll come out of alive. Hearing that difference stated out loud seems to flip a switch in the mass murderer; it certainly refocuses the moral agenda of the film.
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