Friday, August 9, 2013

THE ACT OF KILLING Review- Javi and Jonesy's Take

Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer with Christine Cynn and Anonymous.
Starring: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto
Synopsis: In the 60s, Anwar and Herman killed thousands of people opposing their new goverment, now with a camera in hand, they recreate those killings.

Javi: To go beyond the synopsis, this film follows various Indonesian gangsters, or "free men", who in the 60's, helped kill communists after the government was overthrown by their military. In this case, the communists are anyone that doesn't agree with the new military regime. 40 years and 2.5 million victims later, they recreate their killings in this documentary in any way that they chose. With the way that it's being sold, I thought that there were going to be more scenes of reenacting the killings and the aftermath. I didn't feel like that at all. There were a few major set pieces, but it wasn't as straight forward as the marketing made it out to be.

Jonesy:  There are a few scenes where you wonder just how much "directing" is going on behind the camera.

Javi: Yeah, I love how most of the crew, like cameramen, assistant directors, production members, are listed as "Anonymous." The movie mainly follows Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, a couple of former killing squad leaders, and the Pancasila Youth, which is the main paramilitary group who incidentally have pretty rad clothes.


Jonesy: Yeah that red camouflage looked crazy. Where are those guys trying to blend in? Freaking Mars? So the filmmaker asked these two men to recreate some of their killings, and it ended up with some very interesting and odd results and some awful psychological repercussions. What were they thinking about seeing themselves and with what they did?

Javi: That is an excellent point, my diminutive friend. But I think that we need to touch on that a little later. So the movie is about killers recreating killings which is sick enough, but to me, the more important aspect is looking into the sociopolitical circumstances that even led to these killings occurring in the first place. I hate to bring up the whole Nazi parallel, but these intimate looks at their killings is crazy to because these men thought they had to switch to a more "humane" way of killing because their other way was too messy and bloody, which is how the gas chambers came about.

Jonesy: They used to beat their victims until the bodies started to pile up, so they decided that strangling people with a wire would be the best "humane" thing to do. Which is absolutely twisted. And they thought that was completely justified in their mind.

Javi: They thought that it was humane because the victims would not be given a chance to struggle, and they don't have a chance to save themselves because the wire would cut into their neck. At the same time, you take a look at these people and you realize, they are not smart people. Look at the way Anwar dresses, and I'm being serious about this statement. He tries to dress like someone of a higher class, but you can tell with his mustard colored, badly-tailored suits that he has none. And that says so much about him. He tries to classy, but he is what he is; a piece of shit killer thinking he's all that. They want to be better than what they are, but they fail at the attempt. Beyond the killings being portrayed, I'm interested in the events that led up to the military taking over. We hear snippets about the state-run genocide, the rallies of the Pancasila Youth, and the political climate. I'm not diminishing the story the director ends up showing, but the smaller stories was my big take-away.

Jonesy: Back to your point about clothing, that was them showing "high class" for the type of society they were in. It's that kind of weird Western perspective where Angwar looks like he's come out of a 1970's movie, so he's already 40 years behind fashion and class. In that country's bubble, he probably looks to the people like a high member of society, but to us, he looks like a sleazy dude that's trying too hard.

Javi: You don't think that reinforces my statement? They're ultimately striving for a specific look and style but are failing at it regardless of the bubble, the ignorance, or....

Jonesy: It's not ignorance. The people on this society don't know any better. They're just not exposed to a lot of modern Western society.

Javi: I'm talking about the gangsters.

Jonesy: But think of the actors who Anwar is trying to emulate and admires like Al Pacino, Elvis, Marlin Brando, they're all dudes from the his younger days.

Javi: But what I am saying is that he is copying outdated...

Jonesy: I'm getting to that. We as an audience are outside of this Indonesian bubble, so we can see through his persona. But it's interesting to see that he would seem like a big dog knowing officials and journalists while inside of this "bubble", even though he ends up looking much more insecure.

Javi: I'm really glad you mentioned the journalist, Ibrahim Sinik. He was highlighted because the way he is portrayed shows him to be as messed up as Anwar and Herman. The fact that he said, and I'm paraphrasing, that when they got information about anyone that they suspected was a communist, they would change the "facts" in the newspaper to show the government that they were "communists", and thus justify having that person possibly killed.

Jonesy: Isn't that insane?

Javi: Yes! I don't consider us journalists, but we will ascend that one day. However, we wouldn't dream of being that shady. But it's changed so much. Think about how journalists in the U.S. nowadays get called out for not fact checking. It's amazing what they were able to get away fifty years ago.

Jonesy: In the 60's, the channels of information were very limited. And it's crazy that a ten minute segment says so much about the state of that country, and these journalists might have had to lie so they didn't end up on a blacklist somewhere. And to think that the blind faith that people had in newspapers was being exploited.  If anyone tried to call out someone as a communist nowadays, you could go on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even fact check someone's character against accusations.

Javi: Even more recently, that hilarious California news station that didn't fact check the pilot's name's from the Asiana Airlines flight....

Jonesy: It's weird how much power Indonesia's crooked journalist had.

Javi: And that says a lot of about democratization of news in terms of the Internet. Yes, there is a lot more misinformation, more truths being twisted, but it feels like there're less out right lies. Like if something is convincing, it might get through the cracks, but a total lie will be caught. There was a particular scene that pretty much broke me down emotionally. I don't want to say which one it was for the purpose of the review, but if you want to know hit me up on Twitter.

Jonesy: Why that scene in particular?

Javi: I think that it was because it's both about the things being described but also the encouragement and the social acceptance of these people. The numbness of this society to violence is upsetting. There's also a nerd that was the Minister of Youth or some B.S., and he was just trying to rally the Pancasila Youth to "slaughter the communists" in the current time. What this nerd symbolizes is just how seeped into the culture this mentality has become. This guy was not even young enough to have participated of the initial genocide, but he's still talking like he knows that there is a communist problem in the country.

Jonesy: This movie made me feel so uncomfortable. There were so many times where I didn't understand what I was watching; it was such a violent culture shock. I just can't fathom why and how people would say or think or act that way. A person is not wired like that as a baby. How do you even get to the point of killing 1,000 people? And not even the fact that they do it, but they seemed to take some joy in it. Once again drawing comparisons to the Nazi's, it seemed that some of the younger members of the Nazi's did what they did out of fear of retribution but not because they enjoyed it, whereas that doesn't appear to be the case with these guys.

Javi: And let's make it clear that the movie didn't say yes or no to that.

Jonesy: True. They never flat out said either way, but it seems a lot of the gangsters were part of the coup from the beginning. So they took an especially active interest in the killings.

Javi: Great point. Let me make a couple of observations: 1) If there's a complaint about the movie, and I'm not sure if this is the way that I'm wired, so read into that as you will, but it elicited such a strong reaction for me, I have to wonder just how genuine it is. Because documentarians, what is it that they leave on the cutting room floor, and what is it that they keep in order to make their point they want to make.

Jonesy: You're 100% right.

Javi: Thanks! And that's the more intellectual part of me which kept me from being a a mess during the movie. If that makes me cold or analytical, so be it. I read a book about two splinter factions within a political movement that come head-to-head on a battlefield after their main war was over. One faction was full of sadistic group that hunts down people within their faction that "waived" from their leader's vision. The other group is just a group of scavengers who were just trying to etch out their living in this post-world society. One of the characters within the scavenger groups gives a speech where he believed in the cause, but then there were people like the thugs and the sadists, and they are the ones that failed the cause. This movie definitely made me think of that because there might have been some legitimate reason as to why the original Indonesian government was overthrown, but then because of these psychopaths, we have this movie. I just wonder now what people within this paramilitary organization were thinking to themselves, "Hey, maybe this is not the thing to do." I know that's the not the point of the director, but that's also an avenue to explore.

Jonesy: You're right about your first point...

Javi: Not my second point?

Jonesy: Well yes, but what you said about documentarians that when you watch their work, you can feel that about the editors never cut out anything and don't shy away from the harsh stuff, "these are just the facts, make your own decision." I love documentaries like. Mind you, there is something great about those totally biased documentaries; they can be fun. But to totally see something impartial says something about the filmmaker because you know that they have to have an opinion on their subject, and to attempt to take themselves out of the equation in the narrative is something that is difficult to do. It's a testament to their character.

Javi: It's funny that documentaries, in the more mainstream circles, are heralded as these impartial beacons of truth. I've always been of the mind, and I think I might be totally quoting a Dinosaur Comics, but every time that you are, as a documentarian, pointing your camera lens at a particular subject, you are giving them importance over the other 345 degrees that you're not focusing on. Therefore, there is a bit of a political statement within the fact that they chose to focus one thing over another. Yes, there is a great focus on the killings, the reenactments, the intense psychological snapshot of the killers, and how they deal with their actions, but I like thinking more of what led to the coup and the society that allowed this. Mind you, the reenactments themselves, there were a few that were really upsetting.

Jonesy: There is a village invasion set piece that exemplifies your point of documentaries being cut a specific way to elicit a specific feeling. This scene is shot in a very dramatic way to bring out that emotion. Mind you, it's an emotional response that you probably should have anyway, but if it had been shot by amateurs, you wouldn't have gotten the same reaction.

Javi: Exactly, there was a bit of a cinematographic expertise behind that scene. This isn't a spoiler, but there is a section where a house burns down, and it also seemed to be very professionally shot. There's also no explanation about whether this is a fake or real village in their recreation. We aren't given much about the stakes or the context, which in retrospect makes the scene more fucked up.

Jonesy: See, I didn't get that...

Javi: The reason I say this is because the women and the children are still crying after the cameras stop rolling. So they're either terrible actors and actresses, or their houses have just been burnt down for real as part of this exercise, which is unfortunately not something to difficult to imagine in this society.

Jonesy: I took that scene as the gangsters "volun-telling" people that they have to participate in this reenactment, and the experience was so real for them that it made them very upset and just can't control your emotions. I got the sense that they were burning down something abandoned.

Javi: It looked a little too lived in for my tastes.

Jonesy: The killings were all done in the 60-70's, and while the military group still controls this area and the politicians all still are in coup with the gangster, the people have all learned that the best way to stay alive is to be quiet. Also, the side story of the Herman fella who was running for office, and we got a good glimpse at the way that their corrupt political system is run with bribes and people hired to go to political rallies. Even though Herman was a gangster, he lost because he didn't properly bribe the community upfront.

Javi: Doesn't that seem to mirror the fact that a lot of political leaders including U.S. Presidents have been in military service, and this is a bizzaro version of that concept. I'm not sure if that's the purpose, but that was cool to see.

Jonesy: There's only been a handful of U.S. Presidents that haven't served in the military. To play devil's advocate in case of America, most people think that if you don't serve as the military, how can you lead our defense. I found it odd that they only mentioned Indonesia, but they didn't specify where within Indonesia

Javi: I thought Indonesia was a country...

Jonesy: It is, but it's composed of various islands. It might just be that they need to keep the area anonymous to spare the documentary's crew since they're all anonymous anyways.

Javi: To preface this, there were a few music video scene that were pretty fantastical starring Herman and Anwar, what did you think of that in terms of the overall tone of the film?

Jonesy: That was unique choice where the "music video" ended up being set piece but is spliced throughout the movie. Then when the main part happens, and you realize what their message was. It was the culmination of a big lie that Anwar and Herman have been trying to tell themselves after all of these years. This huge lie within his subconscious where he kind justified his own actions. Then watching his reaction to all the videos he created brought all of those feelings to the surface.

Javi: The way that Anwar's "realization" was seemed really disingenuous. Are we really supposed to believe that he would see a clip, then the director asks you one question, and it makes you question everything you've though was right in the last 40 years?

Jonesy: I would've liked to know what the time frame was because that really colors the perception of the movie. Was it a week, a month, a few months, a year? If they did this for a full year, then this experience could definitely change someone's perception. If this doubt and self-reflection had been building up in Angwar, then it could just take one conversation to make you realize you've been wrong.

Javi: But how much do you actually know about a documentary's time frame? How much do you know about the process in which they are made? And also, should that knowledge change your perception of the film or should you trust everything you see in the screen? Best example of that is INCONVENIENT TRUTH, where your gut reaction is, "Yeah! Let's stop global warming," but then I think about it, and I'm like..."Ok, what research did Al Gore do?" Keep in mind I'm as liberal as can be, so it's not a political bias making me question this. Then I wonder how much of the director's responsibility it is to disclose this type of information or if it's even relevant? You're doing the documentary project, what are your thoughts on this?

Jonesy: It depends on the subject matter, and what they're trying to tell. I've never seen a documentary like this where the subject drastically changes as the movie goes on. I've seen movies where the director starts off telling one story that then escalates to something else, like DEAR ZACHARY, but this is a situation where this has already happened, so there's a retrospective aspect to it. With this movie, the subject seems to change in real time. The reason I'm not concerned about Anwar's reactions is that this was such a remote story. I never even heard of this tragedy occurring even though I studied international relations and political science. It feels more real, and it's not like these guys are just trying to be famous rock stars and coming to America. The killers don't know that this will get out in the world.

Javi: I wonder if any of the killers have been murdered ever since the movie was release.

Jonesy: You never hear what ends up happening to the people afterwards. There's no epilogue. It just ends.

Javi: Moving on to the weird music video, I'm piggy backing off your point. When there's dialogue of one of Anwar's fake victims that says, "Thank you for killing me and sending me to Heaven." It is so beyond fucked up to hear someone say that. Between the colors and the tacky palette, you hear them describing their setting where they're in front of a waterfall and they're describing what it symbolizes. No, these people have serious issues they're trying to translate in their film.

Jonesy:  Anwar thinks that the people that he killed went to Heaven. I mean, that's doesn't sound extremist usually doesn't think that people with whom he doesn't agree with go to Heaven. That's not normal at all. This guy is messed up beyond belief. I'm sure that the 9/11 terrorists thought that the Americans being killed were all going to hell. This is going to be a film that will be eaten up and analyzed in future psychology and sociology classes.

Javi: This is not an optional movie. One of the first "must-see" movies I can think of in recent memory.

Jonesy: I think that's its remarkable this director started with an idea, and then ended up with something else completely.

Javi: To wrap it up, it's not a movie for the faint of heart. But it needs to be seen. Unless it's a Pixar film, I'm not usually moved by movies, but I was moved by the 40 minute mark.

Jonesy: Oppenheimer, whether he meant to or not, ended up with a chilling and unsettling story. This will be seen as a film that will define the genre. And between this, BLACKFISH, and LEVIATHAN, there have been amazing documentaries coming out that show the real world can be just as dynamic as Hollywood fiction.

1 comment:

  1. This is an uninformed, but generally inoffensive commentary on The Act of Killing. Doing a bit of research prior to your review would have been considerably helpful, but there was nothing so bad that warranted my interference until I arrived at Javi’s repulsive remarks about the actors crying during the massacre scene: “So they’re either terrible actors and actresses, or their houses have been burnt down for real as part of this exercise, which is unfortunately not something to imagine in this society”.

    I’ll leave aside the last part about “this society” with its neo-colonial undertones and focus on the absolutely odious “maybe they’re terrible actors and actresses”. There are a LOT of things that you haven’t grasped about this movie, Javi. Let me break them down for you:

    (i) Victims live alongside the killers – they have only learned to remain silent. This was clearly demonstrated in the scene in which Angwar invites his neighbor, seemingly a friend, to participate in the reenactment and learns, ONLY THEN, that he lost his father as a result of the purges. When he is silent with fear and breaks down in tears during the interrogation scene, you can easily tell this is not acting : he is reliving his childhood trauma. It is far from unlikely that some of the “bad actors and actresses” actually had similar experiences happen to them or to their dearest, especially the older men and women who seemed to be quite in shock in the scene – the massacre probably brought back those painful memories, which would explain their very humane reaction.
    (ii) The tearful actors and actresses may be “actors and actresses” (though the documentary shows that Anwar and his friends were quite forceful in their tactics to recruit “actors and actresses”), but the paramilitaries are real paramilitaries, many of whom actually perpetrated those atrocities. No doubt you can easily see why THAT might be troubling.

    To be quite honest, I find your remark, whether it is meant as a ‘joke’, to be extremely insulting for both the participants and the victims of the killings, and would suggest removing it from your review.