Smile and Smile and Be a Villain
Some atrocities are sexier than others. Decades after the unthinkable, the (Western) world blazoned the Holocaust; Native North Americans, Tutsis, Armenians, Kurds, Buddhist monks, Gypsies, Khmer Rouge victims, are causes, while Aztecs, Maya, Incas, Arawak, Taino, Andoke, Bushmen, Pygmies, Maori, are not. And Indonesians? The half- to two-and-a-half-million killed in the year or so following an abortive 1965 coup there against the army are only now brought to people’s awareness in Denmark-based American Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
Like Dutch-Israeli Coco Schrijber’s unjustly ignored First Kill, however, this film focuses on those that did the acts rather than those acted upon. The former’s Vietnam veterans insist on the addictive quality of bloodshed, a better high than sex or drugs, and the irony of war-tourism in Southeast Asia is not directed at the solder/killers on either side. And while the current documentary has moments of kitsch, humor -- “you’re welcome to laugh”-- and irony, it avoids the easy path of excoriating its mass murderers.
Returning to North Sumatra over half-a-dozen years, the director gained access to, and the confidence of -- almost the friendship, from the tone of addresses to his off-camera self -- these several men among many more so feared by all sides that they acted with impunity as death squads.
With Sukarno’s move left towards Communist China, and in reaction General Suharto’s assumption of real power, the large Chinese civilian population was an especial target, entire village communities wiped out, anyone and everyone accused of Communist leanings tortured and killed. This among three-hundred thirty-six recognized ethnic groups under the motto, “Unity in Diversity.”
Even the director’s cut, forty-three minutes longer than the two-hour theatrical release version, however, does not use archival footage. The interrogations, up-close-and-personal killings, dragging and bagging of bodies, torching thatched houses and terrorizing of civilians, all are re-enacted. This is not documentary re-creation but a movie-set acting out of what outsiders would call crimes against humanity by the very men who committed them, now older, relatively successful, and celebrated officially as heroes who saved this the world’s fifth most populous nation from the Reds.
At Telluride, Toronto, Berlin and the MoMA-Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films, AK has proved polemical, for its disturbing subject and subjects, and for opinions about the rôle of a filmmaker vis-à-vis what and when he/she films and whether the very act of recording celebrates and/or alters that material. At a Q&A following the Lincoln Center director’s cut North America première -- repetitive and less preferable than the theatrical version -- Oppenheimer spoke of his own intended impartiality but conflicting feelings for main character Anwar Congo and actual fondness for obese hatchet man Herman Koto. Totally “good guys and bad guys only exist in movies, in stories.”
There are scenes of rallies, intimidations, dinners and art exhibits for Pancasila Youth, a bullyboy Hitler Youth-like enforcer paramilitary, frightful in orange and black. Their sexist commander, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, is a not unfamiliar type, but it is Congo and his close cohorts that are hilarious, unimaginable and yet real, inhuman and yet human. Congo’s cottony hair sometimes dyed, his teeth carefully snapped in, in Grand Guignol-Elizabethan Theater of Blood they don colored chintzy cowboy and noir wardrobes to act out the crimes they are glorified for and of which they are proud.
“Gangster,” they claim, means “free man”; indeed, many were once toughs, petty criminals in the accepted sense, black marketing tickets to the North American movies they admire and ape -- worst of Communist sins was the banning of Hollywood capitalist entertainment -- and are today still ward healers and extortionists. Some deny or play down their parts in atrocities; some admit wrongdoing while saying that nothing can change the past, anyway, and that “conscience” can be cured by nerve doctors.
Above such revisionism, Anwar watches sequences with his grandchildren and illustrates how he garroted hundreds with a wire thus to avoid the stench of spilled blood. In El Sicario, Room 164, an unrepentant, retired, on-the-lam cartel killer-for-hire is dispassionate, objective and chilling in acting out and diagramming his torture killings. The Act of Killing is unsettling in also drawing in the viewer, in almost humanizing its unrepentant vile inhuman men who in theory did not act for personal motives.
(Released by Drafthouse Films; not rated by MPAA.)