Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Act of Killing

Six beautiful women shimmy their way out of the mouth of a giant rusting metal fish. Ahead of them, an old man in a black robe leads the way, followed by another woman—okay, an overweight man in drag, but never mind that—dressed in splendid pink. The group stands before a waterfall, the sunlit mist giving each figure a faint, ethereal glow. The familiar cloying melody of “Born Free” blankets everything in a haze of faded MOR schlock. The dance is interrupted when two people approach the black-robed man. Their own necks tangled in strangling wires, the pair hangs a medal on the old man. “Thank you for sending us to heaven,” they tell the man who murdered them.

This scene serves as the centerpiece of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a remarkable documentary in which mass murderers stage surreal fantasias of their own crimes, mutilating reality until their culpability is deformed beyond all recognition. The old man, Anwar Congo, is but one killer among many. As a self-described gangster, he took part in the mass killings of communists, ethnic Chinese and other marginalized groups in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. The total death count varies, but 500,000 seems a modest estimate; one person in the film suggests Anwar’s share of the bloodshed is likely around 1,000.

What makes this particularly horrifying—and also what fuels Oppenheimer’s penetrating study of guilt—is the fact that Indonesia has barely begun to acknowledge this brutality, never mind make amends to the survivors. The winners wrote history here, and even burnt the history books for good measure (as was the case with a sanitized 2004 textbook version of the events). Anwar and his cohorts don’t just walk free, but are seemingly celebrated for their crimes. When he appears on a talk show, the host introduces him as the man who devised a more effective method for killing communists—wrapping wire around their necks and yanking really hard, apparently—as if he were some celebrity promoting his latest film on The Tonight Show. A viewer walking in unprepared might mistake this for a richly imagined political satire, and not a particularly subtle one at that.

Anwar hardly fits the part of murderous thug. Jovial and easy-going, he gently scolds his grandson for mistreating a duckling and delights in teasing his sidekick Herman (the aforementioned man in drag during the music video). But when he sits around drinking with his gangster buddies, the horrors come bubbling up. One man reminisces about raping women during the burning of a village, sighing like a lovesick romantic as he recalls what he did to a 14-year-old girl. The men gloat while the survivors and their families can only look on with pained smiles, unable to speak out, reduced to bowing and scraping before the thugs. The brutality from over 40 years ago still lingers in the air. When the men decide to immortalize their youthful escapades in film, they struggle to find anyone willing to even play the part of communist.

Anwar and his buddies are still eager to play the part of killer, so why would anyone jump at the chance to play victim? Oppenheimer plays with this sense of performance in the re-creations by often mirroring the Hollywood films that inspired Anwar—gangster and war films, in specific. During the staged destruction of a village, a government minister on hand is acutely aware of the value of image management. As he leads the militia in a fiery kill-the-communists chant, he suddenly turns self-conscious and admonishes the director not to show the group as totally bloodthirsty. But, he continues, they also must not be shown as weak. Herman wryly captures these contradictions with his observation that the entire country is like a soap opera. Everyone is an actor, from the corrupt politicians to the indifferent citizens faking enthusiasm at political rallies for money. (Naturally, Herman wants to get in on the action and runs for office himself. He loses, thus depriving the world of yet another mid-level plutocrat with a sideline in embezzlement, mass murder, and cross-dressing.) 

Amid this maze of self-deceptions, popular delusions, and false histories, the barrier erected between killer and victim is almost the only thing maintaining the brittle peace. Those who died were vilified as foreigners and radicals, an infection of the body politic to be purged through the time-honoured medical treatment of bloodletting. It is only once Anwar plays the role of victim in the re-creation that all of his carefully crafted self-defence mechanisms crumble. Early in the film, he takes the director to a little patio where he did much of his so-called “work.” He fondly recalls his youth; he dances the cha-cha on the tiles where he shed blood. But his earlier bravado is drained away when he returns at the end. “This is one of the easiest ways to take a human life,” he says of the wire, and his voice trails off. His body shakes and shudders with the sounds of retching, while his shoulder blades jut out like fists trying to punch through his skin. Whatever composure the years have bought him vanishes in a moment, and he verges on physically tearing himself apart. One can only wonder at what tremors will shake the rest of the nation when it one day sees itself as clearly.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Flowers of St. Francis

As ascetic in style as in subject, The Flowers of St. Francis depicts monkish life with radical simplicity. This pastoral hymn, at once comical and reverent, pays tribute to the uncommon devotion of these divine dimwits, who caper about their ramshackle monastery with all the giddiness of children (small surprise the original Italian title translates as Francis, God’s Jester). Indeed, the film is so confoundingly free of guile viewers may suspect director Roberto Rossellini of mocking the men’s innocence. Ginepro, the holiest fool of them all, maims a pig and mistakes the tortured squeals of “Brother Pig” for heavenly praise; a later scene where the village poor fight over scraps of charity from the monks could easily have been taken from Bunuel. Only a religious iconoclast like Rossellini, so ill at ease with institutional authority, could craft a work of such spiritual impiety. (Rather tellingly, the fiercest tyrant in the film rules with an iron fist so heavy he can’t even lift it, while Francis grows in power the more he denies his own strength.) The film carries a whiff of the didactic about it, but these parables of virtue and faith are always firmly planted in the stuff of life: cooking food, gathering flowers, building a home. When Francis lays weeping in a dusky meadow after an encounter with a leper, the camera tilts skyward towards the unblemished heavens, but such transcendent gestures are hardly characteristic of the film. Rossellini, much like the monks, is happier down in the mud.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Six past and present leaders of Israeli defence organization Shin Bet submit themselves to questioning in The Gatekeepers, and the provocative documentary that results serves as a living monument to doublethink. Director Dror Moreh steadily pushes the group on matters of morality; the men gamely push back while often adding their own criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestine. A particularly sharp indictment of the Israeli occupation prompts agreement from one of the men, who arches his eyebrows in self-satisfaction, as if to say, “Didn’t expect that, did you?” Political schizophrenia pervades many of the interviews. Referencing the 1984 killing of two captured bus hijackers, Avraham Shalom acknowledges giving the order to kill the men, but denies its immorality—it’s only wrong because the public found out, he explains. (The ensuing controversy precipitated his resignation as head of Shin Bet in 1986.) Everyone in the group has knowingly played a key role in the very same military occupation they now attack, and all seem helpless to change a system uniformly loathed. Even Shalom scornfully dismisses the Israeli government’s handling of the Palestinians as “tactics, not strategy” and compares his country to Germany occupying Poland during the Second World War. All tools of brute authority, the men resent the stupidity of those that wield them.