TCFF 2017 Interview: VICTOR’S LAST CLASS’ Director/Producer Brendan Brandt

One of the many intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s TCFF is Victor’s Last Class, documentary about an acting teacher getting ready to end his life, and a student who attempts to change his mind.

Our blog staff Laura Schaubschlager talked to producer/filmmaker Brendan Brandt on the journey to making his film, where along the course of the project became more than just a filmmaker asking why, but became a close friend trying to change his new friend and mentor’s mind.

1. How did you discover Victor and his blog (and, subsequently, his announcement of ending his life)?

I’m an actor in Los Angeles. I was at a cast party after having just closed a play. The host of the party was a little upset, and when I asked why, he told me that his friend Victor was getting ready to kill himself in two weeks, and he didn’t know what to do.
I was fascinated with the story and asked if Victor would be willing to meet me. I just wanted to talk to him. Before we met, I read all his blogs and got a sense of who he was. At some point right before we met I got the idea to document his story in some way. So I pitched him the documentary idea sort of on the fly.

2. Why were you compelled to make this documentary? How did you hope to challenge Victor’s decision through filming this?

“Why was I compelled” initially is tough to answer. I’m not great at psycho-analyzing myself so there may be some subconscious stuff going on that I’m unaware of. If I was forced to guess I would say I had never truly experienced a death at that point in my life (other than losing a grandpa and grandma). I hadn’t lost a close friend or parent, so I think I was perhaps a little curious about it. That was at first. Then after I met Victor, I bonded with him in a very intense way, and I was compelled to “save” him. I had a mission, to talk someone out of killing themselves. I think that’s how I saw it after awhile.I hoped to do it by asking him some super smart questions. I was on a righteous mission! It sounds incredibly naive and a little arrogant to me now, but I really thought I could get into the philosophy and logic behind the decision and perhaps find a flaw or crack. I was convinced there was a chance to unlock some previously undiscovered angle, and when we fully looked at it, we could come to a different conclusion.

3. Last year, Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You, which deals with the issue of assisted suicide and ending one’s life due to lifelong medical struggles, was adapted into a major motion picture. Have you read the book or seen the movie, and if so, how did you feel about the depiction of this situation after going through it yourself?

Oh man, I was not aware of that book or film. I will check it out when I’m ready to have a good cry.

4. Victor stated in the documentary that he didn’t believe ending one’s life has to just be due to physical pain (he gives the example of someone losing a wife and child in an accident and not being able to go on), but didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to say it would extend to mental illness.

What do you think? How do you feel it extends (or doesn’t) to mental illness? Where do you think the limit is?

Great question. Let me preface this with I don’t have a clear, concrete answer. One of the main lessons I got from this experience was that life is less ‘black and white’ and more ‘grey’. So you have to take it on a case by case basis. We can do a better job of seeking help for mental pain, and we can do a better job of treating mental illness. I didn’t like Victor’s car accident analogy in the moment. That seemed like an injury that, while horrific, would slowly, at least partially, heal with time, and deciding to die before giving it a chance to partially heal would be unwise. Maybe after 10 years, with no improvement in mental health, still devastated and unable to cope, I would be more willing to accept that.

All that being said, mental pain is often worse than physical pain, and ultimately an individual should be in charge of their own life. So, if a mental health expert could determine that someone who is suffering extreme mental pain and wants to die is not “crazy”, I would probably accept that. The main point would be to make sure they talk about it with experts and loved ones, and that we would get a chance to really explore that decision.

5. After going through all of this with Victor, what advice do you have for anyone who has a friend or family member considering ending their lives due to chronic pain or illness? You state toward the end of the film that while you understand his reasoning more, you still don’t agree with his decision; how do you come to terms with those conflicting feelings?

My advice would be to make sure you listen to the person. I’m very grateful I got to have this experience with Victor. And he was grateful I gave him that experience because we got to really investigate every facet of that decision. It was good for both of us, and I think it’s a healthy process to go through. Tell the truth, listen, question, and seek to understand. Not to be nit-picky, but I said: “I still don’t know that I agree”. I think that’s an important distinction. It goes back to my ‘things are grey’ point. I can’t say what he did was right or wrong. I don’t want to say that. But I do want people to look at it and think about it, and maybe make up their own mind.

When I made that comment toward the end of the film, I was hurting. I thought I made a pretty strong case to continue on. It was a little selfish of me to be honest. He was making my life better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It’s taken time and a lot of reflection, and the conflicting feelings are still there, but basically, at this point, I understand and accept. Wish it wasn’t the case, but I accept. Dealing with the conflicting feelings was interesting. As I spoke with his friends after the fact and heard their takes on it, I found myself swinging back and forth, and that continued for a while until I arrived at ‘there is no right answer. It just is.’


FILMMAKERS’ BIOS:

Brendan Brandt (Director/Producer), is a Los Angeles based actor who has been working professionally for the last twelve years in theater, film, and television. He’s appeared in prime-time dramas for CBS, sitcoms for ABC, Comedy Central, and CMT, and films that have been distributed by Netflix, Amazon, and Directv. In addition, he has been in over twenty commercials as a principal actor. His book “Waiting Tables, Dodging Bullets: An Actor’s Guide to Surviving Los Angeles” was published in 2010. Although he’s worked in the industry for twelve years, this is his first time directing a film.

Arielle Amsalem is an Emmy Award winning editor of feature length documentary films. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program, where she apprenticed under the editor Sam Pollard, Arielle started her career working on Spike Lee’s award winning documentary “When the Levees Broke” (2006), a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She has since been the editor of many feature- length documentaries including the Edward Norton produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009) for which she won the Primetime Emmy for Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming. She worked as a Producer on Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”, which premiered at Sundance and aired on the Sundance channel. Additionally, she has consulted on the production and distribution of many of the documentaries which she has edited.


What’s in store for Day 4

Today we are screening lots of movies, there is something for everyone!

Victors Last Class, Instructions for Living, Ice House, Coyote, Cold November, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Beyond the Trek, Beauty Mark, and two blocks of short films (Age of Innocence – coming of age stories, and True Life Inspired– documentaries).


Stay tuned for my Day 3 & 4 recap tomorrow

,,,

 

FlixChatter Review: The Eagle Huntress (2016)

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Director: Otto Bell
Runtime: 101 min

This was one of my most-anticipated documentary of the year, so when it played at TCFF in October I was beyond thrilled. I had never seen eagle hunter doing their thing on screen, let alone an eagle huntress. It’s a world rarely explored on films, and for that reason alone I was excited to see it.

The Eagle Huntress follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. It seems apt that the documentary is narrated by Daisy Ridley, the bad-ass star of Star Wars‘ spinoff The Force Awakens. Within minutes, I was in awe of the beauty of the Mongolian landscape. This is perhaps one of the most beautifully-shot films I’ve ever seen, not just of this year. Not sure what the production budget was, but it certainly looks extremely-well made. I’d jokingly call it eagle-porn for all the stunning sequence of the majestic bird flying in the air, but the most incredible shots are during Aisholpan’s training to catch the bird.

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As the title role, Aisholpan effortlessly won my heart. She has such a great screen presence and charming personality. Growing up in a patriarchal community in a nomadic family, she’s very close to her eagle-hunter father, who often takes her eagle hunting. It’s no surprise that she wants to follow in his footsteps and despite the objections of the community elders who insist that eagle-hunting is a man’s job, her dad fully supports her. If you’re a parent, especially dads, this is a great film to take with your kids. The relationship between Aisholpan and her dad is genuinely heart-warming.

A key scene when Aisholpan and her dad had to snatch a 3-month-old eagle chick from its nets up high in the mountain is quite an adrenaline rush. Aisholpan’s dad literally had to dangle his daughter on a rope over a cliff during a particularly windy day. I’d imagine it’s a tricky job even for a man, let alone a young girl! But Aisholpan defied the odds and she proved the naysayers wrong time and time again as she also triumphed in eagle-hunting competition. But what I admire about Aisholpan is not just her talents and tenacity. Despite being a bit of a tomboy, she also embraced her femininity, as the film shows her wearing a bow and painting her nails. She thrives in a man’s world but she’s still very much a girl and enjoys being one.

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A good documentary immerses you in an exotic world that’s completely foreign to you and The Eagle Huntress certainly did that for me. I love the moments between Aisholpan and her eagle (the one she caught off the cliff) and how she’d talk to her the way a kid would talk to their pet cat or dog. There’s also scenes of her with her girlfriends, most of which don’t exactly share her passion for eagle hunting. It’s truly an insightful, entertaining and emotional experience watching this movie. Apparently director Otto Bell moved Heaven and Earth’ to finish this film as he said in this TIFF interview. I’m glad he did and thanks to him we got to know such an amazing and inspiring story. Kudos to cinematographer Simon Niblett in filming the stunning mountainous Kazhak wilderness, as well as capturing some of the intimate moments in Aisholpan’s journey. They used GoPro cameras to film much of the eagle-hunting action and they’re an absolute blast to watch.

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I’d have rated this film higher if it weren’t for the inaccuracies about Aisholpan being the first eagle huntress. As it turns out she’s also not the only eagle huntress around at present time and that the opposition to her vocation might’ve been exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Now, I wish the filmmaker had been truthful in presenting the story, as I don’t think the fact that there are other eagle huntress lessen the power of Aisholpan’s story. I still think she’s an extraordinary young girl whose story deserves to be told. If you’re curious to read it, this article talks about the real truth of female eagle huntress in Mongolian Kazakh society.

That said, I still highly recommend this film. Perhaps it’s more of a narrative than a documentary, but still it’s a wonderful, uplifting story that’s skillfully-told. A soaring film in every sense of the word. The visuals will no doubt wow you, but it’s the adorable & charismatic Aisholpan who’ll run away with your heart.

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Have you seen The Eagle Huntress? Let me know what you think!

Traveling Through Cinema – Antarctica: A Year On Ice documentary

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I was supposed to see this film a couple of years ago during the Twin Cities Film Festival, but for some reason I couldn’t make it to the screening. The film won Best Documentary from TCFF and rightly so. Well, after finally witnessing this spectacular documentary this weekend, I’m even more gutted I missed it on the big screen. To say that it’s a visual feast is putting it mildly, it’s a surprise my jaw didn’t get stuck on the floor as I was watching it. As I’m not sure if I ever get to visit earth’s Southern Hemisphere in my lifetime, I can always live vicariously through New Zealand’s photographer/filmmaker Anthony B. Powell and his team who spent a year in the icy continent.

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The description on IMDb reads: A visually stunning chronicle of what it is like to live in Antarctica for a full year, including winters isolated from the rest of the world, and enduring months of darkness in the coldest place on Earth. I thought it’d be a typical nature documentary with jaw-droppingly beautiful imagery and some insightful facts about the continent, but what sets this film apart is how affecting and personal the journey is, as told from the perspective of the filmmaker Powell, as well as some of the interviewees who gave us insight into what’s it like working in Antarctica. Ranging from helicopter pilot, fireman, firehouse dispatcher, cook, store clerk, operations manager, etc. they share the psychological perspective of how the extreme weather affect them as a person and how life-altering their experience is. The film takes place in the New Zealand’s Scott Base or United States’ McMurdo Base where most of the crews were stationed at.

Most of the people interviewed seem to have a positive experience, in fact most of them have gone back time and time again, even enduring the Antarctica winter year after year. I said the word endure because that’s a perfect description for it, as one must have a certain endurance power to be able to survive such a harsh condition. It’s interesting that I watch this as Winter is coming to a close, I should’ve watched this in January as it’d make even the harshest Minnesota Winter like a walk in the park! As I was watching the film, it made me wonder if I could survive living in Antarctica. I mean, it’d be a treat to see those adorable penguins up close, but there’s also tragic sights of dying seals who froze to death. Of course there’s the extreme climate itself where four months out of the year you’d be engulfed in complete darkness with temps reaching −89 °C (−129 °F) and even colder windchill. Not to mention the monstrous storms that could freeze anything in sight in a matter of milliseconds.

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The film doesn’t just show the glamorous side of living in Antarctica… the obvious homesickness and missing family members, but there are also times when some of the workers couldn’t even go back home to attend the birth of their sister’s first child or their father’s funeral. On the bright side, Powell himself found love during his time in Antarctica, as the film showed his wedding to Christine Powell who helped him make this film. So there are heart-wrenching and contemplative moments in the film that gives the film an emotional substance on top of just something beautiful to look at. There are also humorous moments, such as when interviewees share about the T3 Syndrome which happens during winter when the T3 hormone in the brain is reassigned to the muscles of the body in an effort to protect it against the extreme cold. You’re probably more familiar w/ the term brain freeze, though most of us probably don’t have their excuse 😉

It took Powell 10 years to make this film, it’s pretty much a passion project for him as he also wrote and produced it, and his wife Christine is credited as second unit director. I’m glad I finally saw this film, if I were to rate it I’d give it a 4.5/5 reels. Featuring plenty of amazing time-lapse photography, it’s one of the most stunning film you’ve ever seen that’s also thought-provoking and inspiring. One of the few female interviewees, who happens to be from rural Minnesota, remarked that many nations get along better in Antarctica than any other parts in the world, now that should also gives you something to ponder. Highly recommended.

Check out the trailer:


With this post, I’m relaunching the Traveling Thru Cinema series that
I launched two years ago
with In Bruges

I hope to keep up with this series at least every other month from now on.


Have you seen this documentary? If so, what did you think?

Documentary Spotlight: 112 Weddings + Interview with filmmaker Doug Block

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The 2015 Twin Cities Film Fest may still be 10 months away but periodically, the organizers run an awesome Insider Series event for film fans to enjoy. Next week, they are featuring a special screening of a thought-provoking and fascinating documentary, 112 Weddings (more info here).

Filmmaker Doug Block is a documentary filmmaker (51 Birch Street, The Kids Grow Up) who does wedding photography on the side for some extra cash. Initially he didn’t really set out to create a film that examines the institute of marriage, but after having shot several weddings over the course of a couple of decades, he often wondered whatever happened to those couples years later. That curiosity sparked the idea for this film, and so we got an intimate and personal look into the lives of about a dozen couples who candidly share their marital stories for the film.

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As the poster tagline says, happily ever after is indeed complicated. And real-life love stories can often be more intriguing and dramatic than whatever Hollywood concocted and that’s what I found when I was watching this film last week. Each couple’s narrative is as varied as their weddings themselves, and it’s clear that marriage is a tricky journey in which there are no shortcuts. One couple is dealing with a child’s debilitating condition, another is dealing with crippling depression and so forth. It’s also surprising to learn which couples stay together and which have ended in divorce, as the film starts with the original wedding footage first. It’s also interesting to see the perspective of a same-sex couple and what marriage meant to them. One of those couples said that marriage sort of ‘solidifies our relationship as a team.’ One older couple decided NOT to get married initially, though they still have a celebration to mark their union as a couple. But later on, after their kids are grown, they did decide to officially marry.

Some of the couples featured in the film

The documentary is only 95-min long and it’s quite well-paced. Though each only have a few minutes to tell their story, you still get a glimpse into the intricacies of their lives. There are poignant and heart-breaking moments, as well as funny moments. One rabbi said the funniest lines that couldn’t be more accurate:

“Weddings are easy… just throw a lot of money at it & liquor. But marriage is hard. If you throw a lot of money at it and liquor, usually it doesn’t end up very good.”

I commend Doug Block for tackling on such a project and as someone who’ve been married for over a decade, it definitely makes me reflect on my own married life. Early in the film, Doug asked one of the couples ‘What’s your biggest fear that your marriage will turn into?’ and that’s really a thought-provoking question that I’d think every couple would have to face at one point or another. It may seem at first, to me anyway, that the filmmaker seems to have a rather pessimistic view on marriage. He asks ‘What does it say when the most hallowed institution ends in failure half the time?’ He also quipped, ‘It’s one thing to take a gamble on a marriage, it’s another to have as much of a chance of success as flipping a coin.’ But overall it’s a sobering & honest look at the subject that presents things as they are, no sugar-coating it. The film actually ends in a hopeful note with a young couple walking blissfully following a festive outdoor ceremony, and it leaves me wondering how things would turn out for the happy couple years down the line.

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I had the chance to chat with Doug via email about his film. Read below on the filmmaking process:

DougBlock_112WeddingsOut of the 112 weddings you have filmed, how did you decide which ones to feature in the doc?

Half were couples who popped right into my memory bank as lively and interesting. Others were picked by way of contrast, and to obtain as much diversity as I could within the parameters of who hired me. Finally, I deliberately tracked down two divorced couples, as I felt that aspect of marriage needed to be represented. Needless to say, those were the toughest couples to find and secure interviews with.

How long did it take you to make the film? I’d imagine it involves a pretty grueling editing process?

It’s something I had thought about for many years, for almost as long as I’d been shooting weddings. But once I actually began in earnest it only took about two years to make altogether, which is relatively quick for a feature documentary. The first year was spent not just interviewing our main couples but viewing as many of the 112 weddings I shot as I could to find moments to use interstitially throughout the film. That was done simultaneously with the fundraising. The second year was primarily devoted to the editing. It was actually a lot of fun to edit because I love collaborating with my amazingly talented editor, Maeve O’Boyle.

Out of all the couples that stood out to me the most were Sue & Steve and the interracial couple Yoonhee & Tom who met on a plane. Could you elaborate a bit on the process of filming either one of the two couples and how that came together?

Sue & Steve
Sue & Steve
Yoonhee & Tom
Yoonhee & Tom

In all cases, not just with those two, I simply called the couples and explained what I was doing. I also told them upfront that I was making the film in partnership with HBO, so that they’d be aware that this was something that would eventually be seen widely. As I say in the film, when I shoot a wedding I form a pretty intimate bond with the couple very quickly, as I’m with them at close quarters on perhaps the most extraordinary day of their lives together. Many years later, they all remembered who I was right away and, I’m happy to say, quite fondly. So I think I had their trust from the beginning. That became very clear when I did the interviews, which, like my weddings, I shot by myself without a crew. At times I was astonished at how open and candid they were with me. It was almost like they mistook me for a therapist

What have you learned from the experience of making this documentary? Not knowing what your view is about marriage, did it alter your opinion in any way?

Well, when I started the project I’d been married for over 25 years, so I’d say I knew a thing or two about marriage.  But I didn’t want to impose my own views and go into the filming with any set agenda.  I just wanted to capture a collection of snapshot-like portraits of marriage by revisiting some of my wedding couples and, when put together, seeing what they added up to.  It actually led to a number of surprises, including questioning why we even bother getting married at all.  I never thought that would be a major question that would come up.
Lastly, what would you like people to take away from seeing this film?

I hope it will get them thinking about marriage in a deeper way, and hopefully lead to some lively discussions. I think too often people conflate marriage with the wedding day. Their fantasies are usually directed at the dress and the cake and what it will be like to walk down the aisle. But weddings are just day one of what will theoretically be a lifetime commitment.

So I hope it shows marriage in an affectionate but much more realistic light. As someone says in the film, happily ever after is complicated.

Check out the trailer below:


112 Weddings is available on HBO Go, iTunes, and Dogwoof TV.



The Act of Killing review and Interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer

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Before I review this film, I think it’s important to give a bit of background on how I came to know about this film. I first heard of it from an Indonesian friend of mine when I went back to Jakarta last December. At the time I hadn’t even heard of the film, but she said it was about the events in 1965, when the Indonesian government led by the first president Sukarno was overthrown in a military coup. Every Indonesian in my generation was subjected to brainwashing by the Suharto regime that the communist party (PKI) is evil and that they pose a mortal threat. Every year we had to watch a propaganda film that’s broadcasted in every single TV network so there’s no way we could’ve escaped it, whilst there’s not a single mention of this brutal massacre anywhere in our history books.

What this film exposes is that the new military dictatorship basically used any means at their disposal to get rid of anyone presumed to have any association with the communist movement. The killings resulted in one of the most brutal genocide in history, with nearly a million people slaughtered within a year. The Act of Killing is a documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish. It’s obvious some of the scenes they re-enacted are inspired by Hollywood films, as the perpetrators of the killings themselves admitted that they’re big fans of violent Brando and Pacino movies. In fact, some of the perpetrators who were ‘premans’ (street-level gangsters) used to be ticket scalpers preying on fans of Hollywood movies at their local cinemas.

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No doubt this is one of the most bizarre and frightening films I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most inventive. Most documentaries I’ve seen usually have talking heads or footage of the subject matter, but in this case, we not only get the first-hand account of the event, but the perpetrators themselves willingly re-enact the brutal events on camera. I enjoyed the fact that the dialog is in Indonesian, so that fact, along with the setting of film, gave me a sense of nostalgia. But the film is so disturbing I had to watch it in two parts. I’ve never felt so many conflicting emotions running through me as I’m watching it, and even days later, it’s all I could think about.

The documentary is so well-crafted as it really transported me to another realm. Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent nearly a decade working on this film, which grew out of another project he was working on in Indonesia [more on that in the interview below]. The Texas-born filmmaker [who currently resides in Copenhagen] had been fluent in Indonesian whilst filming this (you could hear him speaking Bahasa Indonesia to the actors in the film), and it’s apparent that he cares very deeply about the story. I’m amazed at how candid the former death squad leaders were in revealing the acts of killings they did four decades ago, down to the most gruesome details, both in words and in the form of the various re-enactments. It’s interesting that in some of the scenes they’re playing the ‘victim’ of the torture and execution. At one point Anwar said to Joshua that perhaps he could feel what his victims felt when they were subjected to such horrifying terror, but the director wisely but politely rebuked him. Obviously he could never felt what his victims felt, given that what Anwar took part in was only fiction, not the real deal.

The word ‘amusing’ perhaps isn’t what you’d expect in a documentary about mass killings… yet the re-enactments that were inspired by various Hollywood genres ranging from Cowboy movies, crime drama, and bizarre musical numbers where a member of Indonesian paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila was dressed in an ornate drag costume. Some of the scenes are actually funny, I guess maybe because they’re speaking in my native tongue I was able to pick up some of the gestures/jokes that might’ve been lost to non-Indo speakers. Yet I found myself feeling guilty when I laughed at some of the scenarios, because obviously it’s revolting that these guys are in such good spirits and joking around whilst filming such horrific acts. It’s one thing when an actor has to act out a fictional violent film, but every scenes they depicted here are based on true acts of killing that they themselves performed to hundreds of thousand innocent victims.

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Adi (left) and Anwar being made-up for one of the re-enactment scenes

The film focuses mainly on two of the most notorious death squad leaders in North Sumatra, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry. It’s interesting to note the different reactions between the two in how they cope with their past sins. Anwar seems somewhat remorseful and honest about being haunted by his past, in the form of nightmares and psychological torment, whilst Adi is more defiant and in denial about how his past doesn’t really affect him. There’s an absurd conversation between the two when they’re talking about seeing a shrink to help alleviate their psychological issues. Ahah yeah, as if THAT would help anyone escape their conscience! One of the most intriguing character in the film is Herman, who’s dressed in drag for a good part of the film. He wasn’t actually involved in the massacre at the time as he was only about 10 years old then, but he played a prominent part in this film. His evolution throughout the film is striking as he starts out as someone who greatly admires his friend Anwar. As the film progresses, it’s as if his eyes were opened to the reality of evil that he’s somehow being shielded from all his life.

Despite all the grisly depictions, the most affecting scenes to me are surprisingly those when no words are spoken. Whether it’s a scene of Herman playing drums while wailing and screaming uncontrollably, or the deafeningly quiet moment when Anwar simply stops at the stairway as he’s going down from the rooftop where a lot of the killings happened. Both scenes rendered me speechless. But really, there are too many breathtaking moments to mention in this film. It’s truly a film one must experience, I don’t think my review does it justice as it barely scratch the surface of the depth of what’s being depicted on screen. Harrowing, shocking, and at times unbearable to watch… but it’s also surprisingly poetic and beautiful. There are few films out there that I’d call essential viewing, but I think this documentary is one of them. I’m not just saying that because it pertains the darkest history of my homeland, but as Joshua told me during the interview, this incident isn’t just about Indonesia, but it speaks volumes about our humanity and what we humans are capable of.

I hope you’d check it out when it’s out in your area or available to rent. Be sure to seek out the 159-min director cut whenever possible. I’m sincerely hoping that The Act of Killing would get a nod for Best Documentary at the Oscars, as well as other kudos come award season.

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Below is my interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. He was so gracious when we met at the lobby of W Hotel, and when I greeted him in Indonesian, he immediately started speaking Bahasa Indonesia to me so he’s obviously still quite fluent in my native language. As we sat down, he told me that I was the very first English-language interviewer who’s Indonesian. What an honor that is indeed!

Josh, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU so much for taking the time in speaking with me. Terima kasih seribu! 😀

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Photo courtesy of MPR

Please note that I had to break up the interview clips to make it more ‘digestible,’ but I did not edit anything that was being said. Click on the arrow to take a listen.

What makes you interested in this story about Indonesian history as an American?

This is not a story about Indonesian… this is a story about all of us. It’s how we as human beings commit evil, how we tell stories to justify… to lie to ourselves … So it’s not some distant reality. It’s the underbelly of our reality.

My father’s family and my step-mother’s family narrowly escaped the Holocaust. I grew up with the slogan, in the name of all culture, to prevent these things from happening.

How the film of The Act of Killing come about… which is a direct result from making ‘The Globalization Tapes’ documentary in 2001/2002:

Please come back and make a film about what happened in 1965… and about the oppression, fear, corruption, and impunity that was based on that.

The challenges in getting this film made:

The killing was the most important thing they [the perpetrators] have ever done in their whole life… and the basis for any career they’d ever have … What the perpetrators were boasting and telling things that was far more incriminating than anything the survivors could’ve said.

I felt like I’ve wandered into Germany, forty years after the Holocaust and somehow the Nazi’s still in power. And yet I recognize it’s a horrible situation, an important situation, but it’s not an unusual situation.

How did the re-enactments in the film come to be? Was it the perpetrators’ idea?

It grew organically… the whole method was a response to their openness.

When the audience see the perpetrators’ boasting, they’ll understand why we’re so afraid and the nature of this whole regime.

Photo courtesy of the AV Club
Photo courtesy of the AV Club

Filming the perpetrators… and their reaction about being the subjects of this film

Anwar was the 41st death squad member that I filmed. All of them were open and boastful, and they wanted to take me to the places they killed and show me how they did it. I was trying to understand what is the function of this openness… why and for whom are they so open?

What do you want people to get out of seeing this film?

I want the audience to see for one second… I want them to recognize a small part of themselves in Anwar. Because the moment you do that, the whole fantasy that the world is divided up between good guys and bad guys has to collapse… in that moment you can recognize that we’re much closer to these perpetrators than we’d like to think.

* The t-shirt Josh is referring to here is the $6 t-shirt he got from H&M that was made in Bangladesh, where the factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 workers made news back in April.

How did Werner Herzog become exec producer of this film?

Werner saw the director’s cut and said ‘do not cut this.’ But I’d be happy to watch cuts of the film, make sure you didn’t remove any ‘vital organs’ of the film.

It turns out that Joshua knew Herzog through one of the exec producers, British producer Andre Singer, has produced Herzog’s films in the past.

Did you get nightmares from filming… which part affects you the most?

It’s so irreversible what he’s done… Life is one way. That’s why we have to treat it with such care as something so precious, as we have only one chance.

The day after the interview, I attended a masterclass at Walker Art Center where Joshua did a 2-hour Q&A session about the film. I wish the recording had been available for me to link to, but I learned a bit more about the filmmaking process and how the film’s received in Indonesia, both by the perpetrators and the survivors of the victims of the massacre. If you see the end credits of the documentary, you’ll see that many of the names are listed as ‘anonymous.’ That’s because this film is such a controversial and risky endeavor for the people involved in making it. Even Joshua himself admitted that if he were to go back to Indonesia, he’s probably allowed in but not sure if he could get out safely. There are still powerful people who aren’t too keen that he made this film, nor did they ever thought this film would get such an International attention. I for one am thankful that Joshua made The Act of Killing and exposes the injustice and indescribable cruelty the perpetrators did. Even if they’d never get persecuted for war crimes, I sure hope some kind of justice will come out because of this.

Lastly, in response to my question about how the victims’ survivors respond to the film, Joshua revealed that a follow-up film is in the works on that topic. No details are available yet but for sure I’ll be on the lookout for that.


Thoughts on The Act of Killing, either the review and the interview? If you’ve seen the film, I’d love to hear what you think.

Counting down to TCFF: Bikes Over Baghdad documentary review

In about three months time, one of the most exciting event in my neck of the woods is touching down. YES, the Twin Cities Film Fest starts on FRIDAY, October 12 through Saturday, Oct. 20!

I can’t wait to be a part of the festivities again as the official blogger. So from now until then, I’ll be posting advanced screening reviews/announcements relating to the event. For more info, click on the banner to go to the official site and also LIKE TCFF on Facebook!


Just what is Bikes Over Baghdad?

A word from the director from their website:
Bikes over Baghdad was a tour comprised of a team of a dozen action sports heros and legends. We traveled to the middle east six separate times with each tour roughly two weeks in length, facing extreme conditions, mortar rounds, IED’s, injury, exhaustion and more, but never missing a show. And while the team read like a who’s who of action sports, egos were put aside and nothing short of a series of miracles were performed.

Minnesota-based filmmaker Christian Schauf and his brother Zachary were the ones who came up with the idea. Their band Catchpenny traveled numerous times to Iraq. Last month, Schauf brought his cast-members of his documentary for a Friends & Family event for an advanced screening. The cast also held a Q&A following the screening at SHOWPLACE ICON Theaters in Minneapolis. Check out the photos from the event:

My review:

I’m glad I got to see this film on the big screen. Bikes Over Baghdad is well-made doc, it’s energetic, fun, and exuberant with dynamic music playing throughout, including Schauf’s band Catchpenny. I’m not even a BMX show fan but I was engrossed in the film and the experience of putting together these shows from base to base.

What I like about this doc is that it’s not just about the extreme sports itself. I mean they are fascinating in its own right of course, I mean these BMX riders pull massive aerials on quarter pipes and vertical half pipes. They’re such daredevils! I always gasp every time I see them leap high into the air with their bikes over and over again. But their mission to boost morale for the troops in Iraq, Kuwait, etc. are what makes this film so intriguing.

The film shows a good balance of one-on-one interviews with the performers and the troops, the ramps building and the fascinating, gravity defying show itself. The editing is done in a way that isn’t boring. It’s cool to see the reaction of the troops when they’re watching these exhilarating events. They look genuinely in awe and thankful that these BMXers went all the way from the States to give them a form of ‘escapist entertainment’ and let them forget their arduous tasks, even for just a couple of hours.

There’s plenty of humor and whimsical rapport amongst the BMX team, but it also shows the poignant, tragic side when the base got attacked during the show and a few of the troops perished just as the show was going on. It was an emotional moment for the BMX riders and it showed. It’s pretty crazy to see the kind of injuries the performers endure, on top of the lack of sleep and extreme heat. Yet they are passionate about what they do and each of them work so hard day in and day out. It’s apparent that they do this out of love and respect for the troops.

Ron Kimler and Nate Wessler resting in between ramp-building and lamenting on heat rash – photo courtesy of BMX.Transworld.net

Nate Wessel is my fave character, he’s the dread-locked fellow who’s the primary builder of the ramps. His ramp-building skills is amazing and he’s also a professional BMX rider himself. I don’t know how he could get the ramps set up in a matter of 2 hours, a fraction of the time it normally takes, working in 120+ degree-days no less!

The highlight is the visit Sadam’s old palace called Price of Victory palace and biking around inside where it would’ve been impossible for anyone to go into. Check out the trailer below:


I highly recommend this documentary when it’s released in your area or on DVD.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels

..Stay tuned next week for review and Q&A event of:


Any fan of BMX sports out there? Thoughts on Bikes Over Baghdad?

9/11: Out of the Blue – Simon Armitage’s Poem read by Rufus Sewell

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a day I still remember vividly as I was on my way to work that morning. I was listening to my local radio on my commute when they interrupted programming when the first plane hit. I immediately thought it was some pilot error, and that was what the DJ thought too, until the second plane hit the other tower and both the radio folks and I gasped at the same time… and that day, we knew things weren’t going to be the same again.

A couple of years a go, I came across this TV broadcast of a poem written in 2006 by British poet/playwright/novelist Simon Armitage. “I wanted to do something which was both commemorative and elegiac, but not political,” said Armitage in the 2006 Times article. To mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the poem was broadcast on BBC with actor Rufus Sewell portraying a fictional British trader trapped in one of the twin towers as the planes strike. It begins with the trader going about his day in downtown New York as if it was just another ordinary day…

Up with the lark, downtown
New York.
The sidewalks, the blocks.
Walk. Don’t Walk. Walk.
Don’t Walk.

It’s a deeply moving poem, performed brilliantly by Sewell as he’s being filmed against a backdrop of a dealing office. It’s tough to watch however, as actual footage of that fateful day were shown, and the poem itself carries an emotional punch. Armitage takes all those ubiquitous footage splattered all over the media to a mind-numbing point and gives it almost a personal twist by giving the victim a ‘face and a voice’ if you will, offering us a moment to live vicariously through this man and glimpse into the emotion and fears he was facing on the last day of his life. It’s as if we get a view from inside the building, the horror within, a view we rarely get to see.

Here are the clips in four parts:

PART I

PART II

PART III

PART IV


My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone effected by 9/11. Do you remember where you were 10 years ago today?