Sunday, August 4, 2013

MIFF Session 10: ACT OF KILLING: The Tedium of Evil

Retired death squad men go beyond merely talking about their crimes by re-enacting them in the cinematic style of their choice (including musicals). That's the premise of this film and the feature everyone else begins with so I'll not reinvent that wheel. But there is something a lot of the reviews leave out and I'm wondering if it has to do with the cut they saw. My screening was preceded by the reading of a statement by director Joshua Oppenheimer that explained that the cut we were to see was his preferred one which, at two hours and forty minutes, exceeded the general release one by forty-five minutes. That's a hell of a lot of dvd-extra material to stuff back into a movie for screening in a cinema. I'll end this review with why I think that's significant.

This title was buzzing like a turbine by the time of my screening and the session was sold out. The impression of the film was that the shock of the casualness of the perpetrators' recollections coupled with the bizarreness of the recreations of the crimes made for a wild, punchy ride through the banality of evil. I was ready for that. And it's there.

Very early on we are taken to a rooftop area that we are told served as a killing floor for the victims (nominally communists but really anyone out of favour with the prevailing Suharto regime, including ethnic Chinese). Our guide Anwar Congo was a major figure in the killings (millions over a two year period) and established the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary force that continues to this day and never less than unsettling.
Anwar explains how the method changed from fatal battery to strangulation by wire as the latter was cleaner, faster, less exhausting and didn't need reloading. He speaks informatively, his explanation is helpful rather than boastful but there is a glint in his eye. This scene in bright sunlight will have its mirror in the closing moments of the film and between the two there is a continent of information.

The re-enactments happen along the way and are interspersed with interviews with Anwar Congo and his fellow state gangsters (that's self admitted, btw), scenes of them in their current welltodo family lives, campaigning politically, extorting money from local traders and planning how they'l make their movies of their infamous actions. From the baffling dancing chorus lines emerging from a huge walk-through fish to surreal westerns and more predictable war movie or gangster noir the old gang gets together to jam again, rolling about the countryside like big babies getting another chance at sacking a village in a war game real enough to traumatise some of the civilian extras they've roped in. Finally when Anwar watches himself as the victim of one of his garottings he is brought to a freeze. It is the exact moment we have the mental pause to ask what kind of memories to these fantasy versions of their own crimes engender in these men. We see Anwar's response as a slow shock decades in the delivery. His physical reaction is unexpected and closes the film (and is best experienced without knowing detail). 

But this is very potted. I can only guess that the standard 125 minute cut of this film highlights the remorse-free admissions of the chief interviewees and consolidates them with the re-enactments. This cut has other business and alters the phrases banality of evil to the one I used in the title of this post. We get so much information about these misdeeds that our efforts to hold on to them as emotional tokens result in numbness. There is so much of the activities of the Pancasila Youth in its current form that we are exhausted and resistant  that we wonder which of the near three hours of running time we are in. 

But toward the close of proceedings something dawned on me. Perhaps it was too obvious to note at the time but by its persistence offered some relief by providing the film's overarching raison d'etre. We continually see images of two Jakartas; one as new and polished as anything from Tokyo, Melbourne, New York or any modern city where we might be viewing the film and the other as desolate and impoverished as any third world tyranny we might be only conversationally aware of. If the violence of these men played a part in the prosperity it also contributed to the durability of the dispossessed. The forces that elevated these cinema gangsters (a few of them, including Anwar, worked the cinemas scalping tickets) to privileged mass murderers are still in place granting them impunity. The Pancasila Youth rally on. The indonesian term for gangster, preman, is continually linked linguistically to the term free man, meaning (at least when the gansters use it) man beyond law or ethics, not liberated but given carte blanche.

The shorter cut would probably be the one to drive the point home with more elegance and impact but I would, after resisting this longer one for a lot of its running time, recommend the director's cut. It's a difficult and demanding piece of work but it is one thing it is not is a sensationalist quickie. If anything, it reminds me of the work of its two high profile champions, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who at their best transcend the informational brief of the documentary form and find whatever lies beyond its borders. Here it is not the banality of evil but the tedium of it, the thing that can appear so annoyingly dull we pack it away and wait impatiently for something exciting to happen. But it doesn't and the realisation that it won't burns a hole in the pocket where we put it and drives us to a scream. Or a dry retch. Having begun in the big daylight of Java we end in what for at least one person on screen will probably only ever be endless night.

Finally, the director's statement implored his audience to stay for the credits for the real meaning of the film. It is not a spoiler to inform you here that it involves the extensive use of the word anonymous.

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