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.


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).


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.”


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.)

Last week, Kino on Video announced the release of the Danish war documentary Armadillo (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) in the US. I reviewed it during its theatrical run earlier this year:

‘Armadillo’ offers chilling document of the fog of war

With Armadillo, filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen dives deep into the personalities of a handful of Danish volunteer soldiers who are assigned to an outpost near a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. From a filmmaking standpoint, the tension is palpable and human throughout. As a lesson in today’s current events, it remains relevant, as the Western allies continue to maintain a presence after the take-down of Osama Bin Laden, back in early May.

Armadillo truly demonstrates— in a visceral, real way— the cultural difficulties of entering a country to help people that are often hard to distinguish from the enemy. It also does an amazing job at capturing the influence of war on young minds. It’s theme is probably demonstrated best with this image of a wounded, once gung-ho soldier, which was actually used for the cover of the overseas release:

Rarely can a fictional movie capture the shock of the “real,” in the Lacanian sense, with a picture alone. Aramdillo is more than a movie: it’s an experience.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Armadillo, a war documentary by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, works on many levels. He spent six months with a platoon of Danish troops:  From the point when they tell family and loved ones they were heading to Afghanistan to their return home. With all that material, he packed together a tightly edited movie of a little over an hour and a half that unfolds like the narrative of a Hollywood war movie while also stirring up many questions.

Apparently a huge hit in its native Denmark (see this article in “the Guardian”), Armadillo offered a rare embedded look at operations in and out of a UK and Danish controlled base bordering a farming village in Helmand Province and near a stronghold of the Taliban. The film unfolds in a cinéma vérité style with no outside narrator, beyond title cards denoting the months during which events occur and some supers noting names, locations and defining a few terms.

Besides capturing the routine doldrums of a tour in Afghanistan for Danish troops, the documentary also captures moments of sudden violence using shaky handheld cameras typical of Hollywood battle scenes and quick edits between the director’s camera and his cinematographer, as well as helmet cams on several troops. Everyone is represented here: the young troops, the officers leading them, the translators, the villagers. The only characters who remain a mystery are the Taliban. They only appear as distant images or dead bodies. At one point they are presented as spooks, as one soldier warns Taliban fighters are not to be underestimated as many are also former mujahideen who fought Russian soldiers during the eighties’ expansion of the Soviet Union and have no fear of taking on 20 troops with four men.

In their few scenes, the villagers are shown as strong, frustrated, tolerant, cynical and sometimes sinister, as one soldier notes, the Taliban could easily hide among them. Meanwhile, certain troops are developed as characters. There is a soft-spoken soldier on his first visit to Afghanistan after volunteering for combat in hopes of going to the passive station of Kosovo. Then there is the tattoo-emblazoned, gung-ho soldier excited for a firefight. Their platoon leader comes across as a fearless man devoted to a military career. After he suffers a skull fracture from an IED, he returns to the base to show “you can’t get rid of me that easy.”  There are many other distinct characters of note, and all are efficiently established with short bits of dialogue edited from months of footage Metz recorded as an embedded journalist. It serves the story arc of the picture well, but points out the problems of the supposed objectivity of journalists.

Toward the end of the movie, this “objectivity” hits home hard, when the platoon’s leader brings up an incident never shown in the movie that may be construed as a war crime. He gathers the men and scolds one among them who supposedly shared with their parents that some troops “liquidated wounded people and piled up the dead to take pictures of ourselves as heroes” (which is also the focus of the UK article linked above). Here comes the movie’s transcendent moment into the fog of war, as this “incident” never appears in the movie, except for some hints that the possibility might exist that this could have occurred.

During the end of the firefight that culminated with the deaths of several Taliban in a ditch after one soldier lobbed a grenade at them, the Danes start disarming the corpses. As a soldier approaches the scene of death, which seems to be the only direct combat the platoon experiences during their tour, he says, “This is surreal.” One jokes as he disarms the limp, flimsy, shredded corpses, revealing a sort of gallows humor that seems to help him cope with the encounter of the brutal reality of such a violent scene of death. During debriefing the jokes continue. One soldier said he found the enemy combatants moaning and on top of each other and “liquidated them as humanely as possible.” Another soldier even admits to unloading 30 to 40 bullets into one of the wounded.

There was an amazing amount of controversy over this grey area that involves these scenes, as the UK article linked above notes. The film does what it can to question whether the soldiers committed a war atrocity. The “Guardian” article quotes the filmmaker as saying: “It was my intention to place the viewer in a position where he could say that it’s not even possible to know what was going on. Maybe the soldiers don’t even know themselves.” In the end, Metz indeed offers a successful testament to the false notion of objectivity among journalists embedded with troops. With these final scenes in the movie, this idea hits home hard.

During the movie, Metz also shows the troops reasoning away the possible perception of their actions. “Outsiders cannot understand,” one says. In the end, the film cannot capture the true, life-altering experience of war, but what Metz is able to capture is the sense that it is life-altering and shocking. The best you can do is sympathize with these men. There is one scene when one of the soldiers is not only literally wounded by the reality of war but also on an apparent deeper and unknowable level. With a bullet in his shoulder, this soldier’s nearly catatonic look captures it with an immense, simple look. These kids were no longer on an adventure nor playing football. It is a shock of the “real” captured on camera one rarely sees. They have entered the world of the shadow, the dark side of humanity Carl Jung defined in his studies of the mind that, according to his theories, exists in all men.

I can’t find the article, but I read somewhere that Metz said his film presents an image to some as if they are peering through a keyhole into a world one cannot experience or understand beyond that tiny window. A glimpse of the window appears in that soldier’s eyes, and one can chose to look in or not, but I would recommend one take the leap and experience Armadillo for themselves.

Armadillo won the Grand Prix Certain Regard at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and opens at 9:15 p.m. Friday night (June 3) and plays through Thursday, June 9 (Except Wednesday, June 8),  exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)