This, it seems to me, is the summer of the compelling documentary. Already there are four of them out in local theaters in recent months that stand a chance to my annual Top Ten List: Stories We Tell, 20 Feet From Stardom, Blackfish, and The Act of Killing.
Two of these films, the first of the group and the most recently viewed, are extraordinary documentaries that push the conventional boundaries of the form in useful, appropriate, and artistic ways. I’ve already written about Stories We Tell (https://wfdddalton.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/stories-we-tell/) and still think a lot about Sarah Polley’s brilliant film.
I suspect that The Act of Killing will have its own long-term and powerful effect on me.
It is difficult to describe the many layers of Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film and also convey how well his unconventional storytelling approaches work in this doc. I’ve always thought that certain stories dictate the most appropriate storytelling format and, further, that at times conventional structures within the particular form are inadequate to get at intense and large human truths in a way that resonates at a very deep emotional level.
Oppenheimer’s film features two “gangsters,” which they define as “free men” as in the Hollywood movies, who went from scalping tickets to these movies in Indonesia in the mid-60s to heading death squads that murdered ethnic Chinese who would not pay extortion fees.
Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry happily describe to Oppenheimer how they participated in the murder of thousands of people in 1965-66 and demonstrate how they moved from beatings, which were too bloody and inefficient, to garroting with wire like Hollywood gangsters.
The early portions of the film involve interviews and re-enactments on the street with volunteers, but Oppenheimer later moves into re-enactments with props, costumes, and sets or locations. Congo and Zulkadry enthusiastically participate in elaborate scenes from the Indonesian killings that are staged as the Hollywood genre films they favor.
If this sounds odd, it is, but this technique is what unlocks something in Congo, in particular, that makes him confront his feelings about the genocide and acknowledge his role in the bloody, military takeover. For what may be the first time, remarkably, he experiences some degree of empathy for the people he has murdered.
The act of killing – killing people in the past and then acting that out in the present – is a complex and horrifying element that seems necessary to dig into certain emotional truths about the events of 1965-66. To see the prestige that Congo still enjoys as a founder of the Pemuda Pancasila, a right-wing paramilitary group, it is easy to understand that no one before Oppenheimer has likely challenged him to dig deeper and reflect on his actions.
Some critics suggest that there is not enough historical context in the film to give viewers an understanding about the dynamics of the time and place. I understand that criticism, but maps and timelines and interviews with historians would not add to the personal elements of the story and, in fact, would undermine the emotional landscape that Oppenheimer paints. Oppenheimer presents an original vision and structure that are just what this story requires as an indelible narrative conveying powerful and important truths.
Those critics want another type of film. I’ll take this one.