Act of Killing video release

This morning, the nominees for the Oscar® awards were announced. Among those nominated for best documentary* was the already plenty-award-winning film the Act of Killing, which also won best documentary from us at the Florida Film Critics Circle. The film’s co-director, Joshua Oppenheimer sent us a statement regarding the nomination this morning: “We are deeply grateful. This nomination is an honor for us as filmmakers, but for the survivors and victims it is a crucial first step in their country’s acknowledgement of a moral catastrophe— the horror of the genocide and the on-going regime of fear and corruption built by the killers. May it also be a first step toward healing.”

Last week, Cinedigm Entertainment released the extended cut of the Act of Killing on home video. I first spoke to Oppenheimer last year. We spoke fast and deep about this film, and much of our conversation can be found in this post featuring two articles:

An interview with the director of ‘the Act of Killing’; more in ‘Miami New Times’ (August 16, 2013)

However, as is usually the case, even with two articles, there was still left over material from our interview. I don’t even think I had room to note that Oppenheimer is actually credited as co-director with Christine Cynn and “Anonymous,” the latter representing the survivors of a virtual genocide in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThey too spoke out about the Academy Award nomination: “The Act of Killing— and the issues of impunity it raises— will make front-page news today in Indonesia. Our schools still teach children an official history that glorifies genocide, and our government continues to celebrate mass murderers as national heroes. They do so to keep us afraid, so we won’t dare hold them accountable for their crimes. I hope this nomination encourages us to demand truth, justice, and reconciliation.”

That fear was the source of inspiration for making the Act of Killing. Oppenheimer revealed the project began with the Globalisation Tapes, a film he made with Cynn about a Belgian-owned oil pump plantation in Indonesia that manufactured palm oil (take note, Nutella lovers), which documents the struggles of workers with abuse and inhumane working conditions (the film was never released on home video, but you can view it free here). Oppenheimer noted that the workers were threatened into not forming a union and had to endure forced labor and pesticides that killed mostly women over the age of 40. “Turned out that the reason they were terrorized into silence was that their parents and grandparents had been in a union until 1965 and had been accused for being communist sympathizers simply because they were in a union, had been rounded up, put in concentration camps and dispatched out to be killed by local death squads, and they were afraid that this could happen to them again.”

This piece of history that still haunts much of the Indonesian population became the inspiration for the Act of Killing. However, the filmmaking was met with many roadblocks by Indonesian officials. “As soon as we came back and word got out that that’s what we were doing, the army would come and stop us from shooting with them,” Oppenheimer said.

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The victims that compose “Anonymous” then gave Oppenheimer and Cynn the idea to focus on the perpetrators because, they said, they would gladly not only share details about the killings they committed but also show off about them. The filmmakers struck a goldmine of material to work with. “I found they were all boastful. They were all open,” said Oppenheimer. “I found myself in Germany 40 years after the holocaust, and the Nazis were still in power.”

The filmmakers were able to brew up a surreal concoction of staged movie scenes featuring the killers themselves among traditional documentary footage. The mix of gangster film, musical, horror movie and documentary makes for a surreal experience that feels more truthful than most documentaries. The Act of Killing takes an exploration into the depths of the soul of men corrupted by heinous acts to a whole other level.

Oppenheimer said he prefers the extended cut of the film, a near-three-hour odyssey into the heart of remorse and revelation unlike most anyone will ever see, which can be found on the home video release. He notes one of the film’s executive producers also prefers this longer cut to the U.S. theatrical cut: the famed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (the other noteworthy executive producer is Errol Morris).

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The director also noted that some of the subjects of his film have seen this extended cut. “Anwar [Congo] was very, very moved by it. He was silent from a long time after watching it, a little bit tearful, and he said, ‘This film shows what it is like to be me. I am grateful to have had the chance to finally express feelings that I have been discouraged from acknowledging for so many years.’”

Oppenheimer noted he and Congo, who he filmed over the course of five years, have remained in touch, “and always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate and ultimately transformative journey.”

Then there was Herman Koto, who never hesitated to dress in drag during many of the staged scenes. “Herman has seen the film and loves the film,” said Oppenheimer. “Herman, over the course of the film, fell in love with acting, developed an actor’s loyalty to the truth. A good actor has to have a loyalty to the moral and emotional truth of any situation that she or he is acting in. He does.”

Oppenheimer said Koto also came to his own revelation about the group he belonged to, the sort-of neo-fascist Pancasila Youth, which still hold rallies celebrating the killings to this day. “He became more disillusioned with Pancasila Youth because he came to understand more and more deeply the horror upon which it’s all built. So he’s been very supportive of the film.”

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Someone Oppenheimer did not bother showing the film to was Adi Zulkadry. He explained, “He recognizes in the film exactly what the film will do and decides to leave the film for that reason, and he has high connections with the paramilitary leadership in Indonesia, and I was worried that if he saw the film he could start lobbying against the film and that could jeopardize our plan for distributing the film in Indonesia and could make it unsafe for people to screen the film … All high-ranking political leaders who appear in the film inevitably hate the film, as well as they should, or else it would mean I didn’t do my job.”

Though, throughout the Act of Killing, the filmmakers keep the implications of U.S. culpability to these killings on a subtle level in the film, juxtaposing destitute neighborhoods and the fancy malls tourists and the upper class frequent in Jakarta, it’s not lost on Oppenheimer that there was something culturally criminal at play here. Therefore, there could be some poetic justice if the film indeed wins the Oscar, come March 2. “There could be a whole film made, certainly a book written, about the U.S.’s role in supporting the genocide,” he said. “but that would be a historical film. The Act of Killing is not a film about the past. It’s a film about today. It’s about how the past is abused in the present … The moral and cultural vacuum of sort of rampant capitalism and consumerism. The alienation, the hollowness of consumerism is a character that haunts the whole movie.”

Hans Morgenstern

In South Florida, The Act of Killing returns to the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus for two nights only this weekend (buy tickets).

*Also nominated for best documentary feature was another Indie Ethos favorite, Cutie and the Boxer (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship)

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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After the Act of Killings director Joshua Oppenheimer began talking with several survivors of a killing spree in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965 at the hands of thugs drafted by the military to weed out accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, he had no idea he would become friends with one of those killers. The documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, the last of the 41 perpetrators he met during a total of eight years trying to make this film. Speaking over the phone from a hotel in New York City, Oppenheimer said they still speak. “He and I have remained in touch every three to four weeks,” he said, “and I think somehow we always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate, ultimately transformative journey together.”

The transformation comes about in the film on a rather surreal but brilliantly therapeutic level when Oppenheimer asks Congo and other executioners to act out the killings in brilliantly shot if hokey dramatic reenactments that cover genres from gangster films, musicals to ghost stories. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThe director noted that the reenactments were designed to work on a higher meta-level as being symptomatic of the perpetrator’s boasting and impunity. However, something surprising happened with Congo. “Each time we would shoot a scene he would watch the scene, and he would be very disturbed by what he saw, but he would not dare to say what was wrong with the scene,” said Oppenheimer. “Basically, he would displace the guilt on something trivial like, the costumes are bad, the acting or the genre, and he would propose a new scene. So in a sense he was trying to run away from his pain the entire time, and that’s the fuel for the whole process.”

He points out that with the Act of Killing he was not seeking to make a sentimental film or a psycho-drama. “That would be obscene and wrong,” he emphasizes, adding that this all happened rather serendipitously. He says he unconsciously focused on Congo but, in hindsight, remorse underlined all his seeming boasting. No matter the argument, deflecting or escape, below it all lies a conflicted awareness of guilt. “I don’t think I met a single perpetrator over all these years that did not know that what they did was wrong,” Oppenheimer stated.

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During their first meeting, Congo admits to Oppenheimer that he was often drunk or high during the killings. At first, the admission seems to highlight the “thrill” of killing, but in actually it was one of the many ways Congo found an escape from confronting the horror of his actions. “That’s right,” Oppenheimer agreed. “Anwar’s conscience is present from the very beginning.”

Congo also notes that gangster movies inspired his methods of killings, including garroting by wire. He also throws around an appreciation for Pacino and Brando.

However, don’t blame violence in movies for his behavior because Congo also notes a sense of euphoria after watching Elvis Presley musicals and stabbing people in the street. What’s up with that? Oppenheimer points out that something more sinister underlies these forms of cheap Hollywood films: numbing escapism. actofkilling_2“Some people have made the link that violent movies cause violent behavior, but Elvis Presley musicals are the most vivid example [Congo] gives: of walking out of a midnight show dancing his way across the street, intoxicated by his love of Elvis and killing happily, and Elvis musicals are not violent. They’re just stupid, and I think the real risk is escapist storytelling. How we tell stories, all of us, you, me, everybody to escape our most painful and bitter truths.”

And this is what makes the Act of Killing, which climaxes in one of the most visceral scenes of remorse one will ever see committed to film, the most disturbing horror film you might ever experience.

You can read much more of my interview with Oppenheimer and watch the film’s trailer on the website of the Miami New Times and its art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the logo below:

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Hans Morgenstern

The Act of Killing is in Indonesian and English with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is not rated (the violence is all staged and/or recalled as stories, but it’s more disturbing than you might be able to imagine). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami, for which I originally wrote this interview. It’s playing across the globe now, even having distribution in Indonesia. For worldwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Update: the Act of Killing opens Sept. 6 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Sept. 15 at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)