I usually stay away from films with violent words in their titles. I’m sensitive to violence in movies, and I spend all violent scenes covering my ears with my hands and staring stoically at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder. But last night, something told me to make an exception for The Act of Killing, a documentary showing at SXSW this week.
That “something” was the endorsement of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, documentary superstars who I’d like to imagine summering at each others’ houses, and the intriguing description. It’s about the perpetrators of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 getting together to make a fictional movie celebrating and glamorizing their past. They were “movie house gangsters” who took tickets at the cinema, got inspired by the violence in Hollywood movies, and aspired to be even more sadistic than what they saw on screen. One million people were killed in the genocide, and the main character claimed to be responsible for a thousand of those deaths.
The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, introduced the movie. “I won’t tell you to enjoy it,” he said. Awkwardly, the festival organizer came on right after him, told us there would be a Q&A later, and said, “Enjoy the film” as if there was no other way to close it out before the lights went down. Then the Alamo had a threatening message about not texting talking instagramming sexting etc, and the movie’s opening credits were disturbed by a waitress loudly asking our neighbors if they wanted parmesan on their popcorn.
What followed was an intense and powerful film about the state of Indonesian politics and how the killers are dealing with the past. The situation in Indonesia is as if the Nazis won and stayed in Germany, and celebrated their crimes and continued to act like gangsters with total impunity. In one scene, the Vice President of Indonesia gives a speech in front of the paramilitary and says, “We need our gangsters!” In another, the gangsters who are making the movie go on a national talk show, and the host congratulates them for creating a more humane and efficient way of exterminating people, as if Oprah was telling about a woman’s journey to her best life.
Those scenes felt surreal. They’re just so outside the realm of imagination, and also, it’s crazy that such an alternate reality could exist and that I was totally unaware of it. The movie-making scenes were equally crazy, starting one of the gangsters dressed up in drag with a Buddha belly and I’m still not sure why.
But the movie was really about the main character, Anwar, trying to exorcise the demons that haunted him from the genocide. In the first scene the director shot with him, he danced on the rooftop where he said he tortured and killed so many. Throughout the movie, he goes deeper into dealing with the morality of what he did - even though everyone around him glorifies his actions. In one scene, in which he says he understands how the people he killed felt being tortured after acting it out, the director calls him out from behind the camera. “No, you don’t know how they felt,” he says. “Because you knew it was a film and they knew they were about to die.”
After the film, the director did a quick Q&A and explained that although he was no longer welcome in Indonesia (the paramilitary tweeted that if he went back, the film should be called “The Act of Being Killed” which Oppenheimer thought was very clever, but scary), the film had changed the conversation about the genocide. People were actually able to speak out, whereas there had been total silence and intimidation before. He had started making films about the survivors and victims, but found filming stunted by the military. A neighbor suggested that he go and film with the killers. He interviewed 40 of them before he found Anwar, and shot him dancing on the roof.
After we were hustled out of the theater, we spent another half hour huddled in a small circle around the director, talking about the film. This is the kind of thing I love about South By. The thing that struck me about him was that this guy had already done a life’s work: Making a film that made a difference. For me, that’s what the point of art should be. Usually art aims on a small and vague scale of difference making (“start a conversation about…” or “make people think differently…” or “shock”) but The Act of Killing aimed for an overpopulated country with huge problems in the present and past, and made a difference there. That’s incredible; that’s inspiring to me.
The other thing, as an aspiring documentary maker myself, was that the film didn’t always look great. I’m so used to seeing these crisp and visually rich films shot with DSLRs on up. I just took a class on digital filmmaking that focused mostly on shooting narrative films where shots and lights are pre-arranged, and was frustrated by how the documentary I shot was often rough and shaky (I really would have liked a dolly walking alongside my character!). But in The Act of Killing, all scenes shot at night or in low light looked grainy or noisy, and some scenes were out of focus. And that was okay, because the story was just so captivating. I get caught up so often in how things look and it’s a reminder that the most important thing is story. And sound.
So go see The Act of Killing when you can. It’s being distributed by Drafthouse Films here in town, so it should be getting showings across the US.
Also, I’m having my first premiere today, at SXSW! A short documentary I made last year with Robert Melton won the City of Austin film contest and is being shown in a showcase at the Carver Center. It gives me a little bit of street cred, I hope.