Preamble : I originally heard of the Joshua Oppenheimer documentary when it came out at the Berlinale last year, and subsequently a website (NOOOO torrents ! I swear!) offered it on a free download for a short while. I didn’t review it because like the thousands of movies I watch on the small screen , I don’t usually review films which I think are not topical or contemporary mass market presentations by the local marketing machine…IOW, I don’t review a film I might get hold of after it’s Sundance exhibition, but when fox movies releases it to (even limited) screens , I think its the time to start a conversation(often its just to bring awareness to the film ). I think maybe my job is done correctly , thus.
Filmmaking has many motivations. Watching films have many motivations too. When I see a killing spree I might do it for voyeuristic reasons , for entertainment , to take me and my woman friend to a date, to be well informed and sound cultured. When people refuse to mirror reality in films, I will often pretend that the blatantly manipulative version of reality IS indeed reality, and the people I have heard of in real life behaved like the fake entertainment version of historical stories(Lincoln, Django, Zero Dark Thirty) told by hacks who really, are only doing it to fill 3 hour real estate rental space in AMC theaters.
The power of images , however, is so compelling that when you see a story that could easily BE real, while denial is the first sentiment I feel, (Surely this is a fake, even if its a brilliant concept) it is followed …slowly by a dull anger at myself for being such an impotent goldfish in a bowl , watching the family clean and eat fish for dinner.
The dead don’t remember.
The Act of killing is the recreation of killing perpetrated in the Indonesian genocide by THE GUY WHO DONE THE KILLING.(History is written by the winners , the Indonesian says, So I shall write a history where my killings are looked at like a happy ending in a movie with singing and dancing girls proclaiming peace).
The film tries to treat murder like a chinese (move) wire fu stunt. Gen. Congo is certainly of the impression that that is how history should see it. As the General and the militia (still constituted, and headed by the same people that carried out the killing in the old day) trolls the slums for actors to recreate the killings HE committed fifty years ago, you see a remarkable lack of awareness of the past among the poor. Here, the poor do not remember history. Only the murderers do.
The secret to WRITING history by the winners is the REMEMBERING and the dead don’t have memories.
A Narrative reclaimed
SO the filmmaker and the general plan out how he can clinically reclaim the glorious heroics of the maligned 1965 purge. The general is very frank. the initial set of killings were bloody because they used knives. Then he devised a metal gavotte that was efficient and bloodless. How many did he kill(the general estimates, about 100,000 by his own hand. “who knows” he says.)
To do justice to his memory, General Congo’s recreations of his killing communists are interspersed with some shots of the present, where the right-wing muslim militia is shown in its present form patriotic, forward looking (rallies full of half naked smiling dancing women) and very determined to kil the enemy within… and half , dream sequences, where one of the leaders of the militia is dressed as a representation of his patriotic motherland – A transgender brightly costumed lady in an opiate dream, who drives the hero to greater heights.
With a little prompting , and a lot of makeup and costume, The general recreates his murders, sometimes after torture to a suspected communist, whom he has made to confess, and sometimes as whole villages of adult communists child communists male communists and female communists are lined up for further examination and eventual killing ( if they are 12 years old …oh…delicious. his friend exclaims remembering the girls he raped) . remembering is therapy.
The general is shown gently caring for a duck with broken feet at his home with his grandchildren. Heroes are sensitive people. He is shown being honored for his work by the people. …by the generals(who are still in power) and by the businessmen of the “new ” Indonesia, who need him now , more than ever , as the ranks of poor grows again like lice on an urchin’s head (how can you fuck a child prostitute with lice on her head?) . His killing is meaningful. it changed history. He is just like the greatest killers in the world statin pol pot….America, John Wayne….
And a hero has tragic regrets for his actions. The film shows him , after celebrating his win, his family and his public adulation, vomiting at the scene of his murders.
Hope General Congo feels better.
(A Historical note on the Indonesian genocide: The Indonesian Anti communist purge of 1965 was estimated by American historians to have killed between 500,000 and a million Indonesians, historians on the other side say the number is easily four times that much. This was part of an American Navy inspired coup in Indonesia which brough Suharto into power. Between 1965 and 68 Suharto is estimated to have killed , in his coup thousands of communists, communist sympathizers(US intelligence provided targeted names to the junta) , wiped out villages where people were suspected of being communists, non muslims, foreigners or just anybody Suharto’s gangs took a fancy to. They were encouraged to do this by Suharto’s military , which drew its power from the US military which had residual assets from its nearby wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. every “communist” death was cheered in Washington as if it was a victory against the soviet union. Most of the actors are still alive in Indonesia and the US, and have or have ended flourishing carrers in the military/the pentagon ,and are still active in geo politics.)