The Act of Killing review and Interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer

JulyMovie_TheActOfKilling

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.

FCInterview

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?

Art&Copy Documentary – Creativity can solve anything

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Hate advertising? Make better ads. – that’s director Doug Pray’s statement on its official site.

As an interface designer who once yearned to be in advertising, this is absolutely fascinating. Lee Clow, George Lois, Hal Riney, these are advertising rock-stars whose career everybody in my mass comm class drool over. It’s been said that Lois is one of the original “Mad Men” with his in-your-face celebrity advertising, but my advertising hero has always been Lee Clow, the brain behind the Apple Computer‘s famous 1984 Super Bowl spot and Taco Bell‘s talking Chihuahua. I used to compete with my hubby in college collecting those imaginative Absolut Vodka ads, another brainchild of Clow. But you don’t have to be in creative field to appreciate the work of the people featured in this documentary. In fact, it’s very likely that you’ve bought stuff because of the advertising behind whatever that stuff is.

Synopsis: ART & COPY is a powerful new film about advertising and inspiration. Directed by Doug Pray (SURFWISE, SCRATCH, HYPE!), it reveals the work and wisdom of some of the most influential advertising creatives of our time — people who’ve profoundly impacted our culture, yet are virtually unknown outside their industry. Exploding forth from advertising’s “creative revolution” of the 1960s, these artists and writers all brought a surprisingly rebellious spirit to their work in a business more often associated with mediocrity or manipulation: George Lois, Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, Lee Clow, Hal Riney and others featured in ART & COPY were responsible for “Just Do It,” “I Love NY,” “Where’s the Beef?,” “Got Milk,” “Think Different,” and brilliant campaigns for everything from cars to presidents. They managed to grab the attention of millions and truly move them. Visually interwoven with their stories, TV satellites are launched, billboards are erected, and the social and cultural impact of their ads are brought to light in this dynamic exploration of art, commerce, and human emotion.

So if you’re like me who watch the Superbowl just for the ads, this is a movie for you.