Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Further 'enemies of the people' explored in Joshua Oppenheimer's The ACT of KILLING

Back in 2010, we covered a small but piercing documentary entitled Enemies of the People (that review can be found here) about Cambodia, in which its filmmakers record the words and actions of, among other "murderers," one of the top Khmer Rouge officials under Pol Pot, responsible for countless deaths of his countrymen, as he and others confess, right in front of us, on-screen. The film was grueling, informative, moving and hugely effective -- unlike anything that I had seen previously. Now, with THE ACT OF KILLING -- a new documentary that explores similar behavior in a very different country, Indonesia -- filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer (below, left), Christine Cynn (below, right) and Anonymous (who, if s/he were identified, might risk death to him/herself and family) take this confession of genocide even further into the realm of, dare we say it, art.

Despite the similarity in subject matter, the extreme differences between these two films can be placed on the doorstep of both the countries in question and the people making the two movies. Indonesia has a squalid and disgusting history of genocidal dictatorship, death, torture and a populace most likely by now inured to this kind of slavery and lack of change. Cambodia's is otherwise. I am no expert here, but I believe that the revolutionary, horrific and relatively short
reign of the Khmer Rouge was a one-off thing for a people who had, like so many others, endured colonization and unfair rule, but whose religion of Buddhism, inflected with Hinduism, had endowed it with a certain inner peace (OK: I'm being a little simple-minded here, but culture, history and even -- gasp! -- religion do matter. Indonesia, by the way is almost entirely Muslim: over 87 percent, according to the 2010 census.) And while the filmmakers of Enemies -- Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath (the latter's family was killed by the Khmer Rouge) -- took a simpler, more direct and personal approach that resulted in a purer look at people and events, Killing's crew have seen fit to quite heighten their film's rather surprising entertainment value.

Among other enticements, Oppenheimer et al. give us a "film" within the film (above) meant to somehow obscure the events; family celebrations; rehearsals and recreations of murder, mayhem and wives and children pleading for their loved ones' lives; tepid choreography amidst nature's grandeur (also above), accompanied by the famous pop song, "Born Free," which will never have been heard quite so full of irony; and a whole lot more.

Yes, this gussies up the film (it also lengthens it: 122 minutes against Enemies' 93), while making us better under-stand why two famous doc-makers -- Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who also employ the art of gussying -- are credited with "presenting" this film. If The Act of Killing ends up entertaining us a tad shallowly against our better judgment, it also enriches, making us explore from different angles, while alerting us all over again to how human beings seem best built for killing, hypocrisy and denial.

The two main men we meet in the film, and who would have to be considered its stars, are one who calls himself Anwar Congo and another named Adi Zulkadry. Both -- shown in "make-up," above, with Anwar on the right -- are mass murderers. But the way they've handled this, down the decades, is quite different. Anwar is the more outgoing of the two, a real "family" man (shown below with his grandkids), but he's also the one who appears to be having trouble putting the past to rest. (Though I'm not quite sure I believed in his nightmares and "guilt." In the end scene, he seems to be wretching badly, but no vomit ever comes up. He may simply be the supreme "actor.")

Adi has a much better handle on it all. More direct and initially "honest," it turns out he believes in putting everything behind him and just leaving it there. Supposedly, because of the statute of limitations, the men can no longer be charged. But this has more to do with the current-and-as-ever political situation in Indonesia, where criminals, whether politicians or gangsters like these two guys, rule entirely. (The term "gangster," we're told again and again by the murderes on view, actually means "free man," which is yet more bullshit, just like much else spouted by Anwar and Adi.)

This movie, often disgusting and stomach-churning, will make you about as angry as any documentary you've experien-ced. (The Indonesian TV talk show, below, provides just one of these moments.) And then, as it goes along, you may find yourself beginning to identify with these two men. Just a little. But enough to possibly admit to the humanity we share. Oh, you'll still want them dead -- and maybe tortured a lot beforehand -- to somehow make up for every last one of those poor Communists, Chinese, or any other of the "other" deemed worthy of killing, whom they ushered into oblivion.

This is never broached in the film, but watching Anwar, I couldn't help but wonder if he isn't gay. I mean he looks, acts and dresses that way. But then, as we're in a Muslim country, this must of course go totally unexplored. At one point, early on, I think it was Anwar who explains, "We have to show who we are so that, in the end, people will remember." Uh... Yes, indeed, honey. And you and Adi -- along with Oppenheimer, Ms Cynn and Anonymous (the end credits here, unlike those of any motion picture I've seen, are chock full of this word) -- have done exactly that.

The Act of Killing, from Drafthouse Films, opens this Friday, July 19, exclusively in New York City at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema, where director Joshua Oppenheimer will appear in person on 7/19 at the 7:30pm showing and on 7/20 at both the 4:50 and 7:30pm showings. In the following weeks, the movie will roll out across the country in most major cities. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

No comments: