Truth And Fiction

Many of my favourite films of recent years have been classified as documentaries (The Fog Of War, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Inside Job, Beware Of Mr Baker, Nostalgia for the Light, Stories We Tell….) but the one that won the Bafta in that category last year takes the genre into brave, new territory.

In The Act Of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer puts in front of the camera a handful of the gangster* paramilitaries who helped the Indonesian army torture and kill around a million ‘communists’ in 1965/66. He then encourages them to create fictionalised versions of their acts. Being still highly-regarded by the current regime, they are keen to do so and, being fans of Hollywood films, they use the language of the Western, film noir, the musical and the gangster film.

The result is a devastating, upsetting, mesmeric, often surreal, portrait of corrupted humans who are celebrated and still valued by a corrupt government. It is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and I urge you to see it.

*The label ‘gangster’ is worn as a badge of honour, as it is understood to mean ‘free man’. Hence the use of Born Free in the film.

Given the subject matter, I realise that this is a big ask, but its a story I was woefully ignorant of and one that the West is entirely complicit in (the CIA provided lists of names for the killers, the UK provided support for the regime and we all buy goods made in Indonesia).  Here’s a bigger ask: buy the Blu-ray, as it also contains two interviews with Oppenheimer. He is extremely articulate and honest about how he came to make the film (which took eight years in total!) and the processes he used, and he gives some extraordinary context to the characters and events it shows. He also dismisses the notion that ‘documentary’ = ‘truth’ and instead uses the term ‘non-fiction’ to describe films that tell the stories that real people tell, even if they’re not ‘objectively true’.

The interviews also explain the fish.

10 thoughts on “Truth And Fiction

  1. Thanks Chris for posting this, it’s a film that deserves to be seen by everyone here. I’ve long been a fan of documentaries and if I can get my brain in gear I might be able to add to your recommendations.

  2. He then encourages them to create fictionalised versions of their acts. Being still highly-regarded by the current regime, they are keen to do so

    Hmm! Not sure whether the cinematic portrayal of ‘criminals’ in this “mock-documentary” is crass beyond belief or places Oppenheimer as ‘guilty’ as the current regime in glorifying the protaganists of the killings.

    The fact that the people who carried out these atrocities are ‘celebrated’ rather than villified is beyond my sensibilities.

    A very provoking post Chris and one that addresses events that I too was largely unaware of but as to buying the DVD, I think not as why would i seek to contribute profit or conscious acceptance to something that seems to have been unnecessarily given the “Hollywood” treatment from the short clip shown.

    Granted these ‘unknown’ events should be disclosed to the wider world but i’m not sure that this is the best format.

    Not aiming to be contentious or antagonistic but to me this isn’t how you depict such horrendous events.

    • The fact that the people who carried out these atrocities are ‘celebrated’ rather than villified is beyond my sensibilities.

      As it was to Oppenheimer when he first went to Sumatra in 2001 (for the first time and for a different project) and found men boasting of their murderous deeds openly. He found hundreds of them, everywhere. The military regime was still using these gangsters to keep the population under control 35 years later. They wanted to tell him what they’d done, show him how and where they did it. He was as gobsmacked as you and I would be but it’s true.
      The links between these murderers, the paramilitaries and the government were still strong a couple of years ago: the Vice-President of Indonesia is shown in the film wearing a paramilitary uniform and saying that beating people up is sometimes necessary; another member of the government joins in the re-enactment of one atrocity as its cheerleader…

      The acting out of their deeds was a way of letting the perpetrators examine what they did. The documentary records everything: them play-acting, filming, remembering, arguing, boasting and – in one case – the gradual realisation that what they did was wrong. There is no glorification whatsoever.

      To this day in Indonesia, children are taught that the bad people – labelled ‘communist’ but actually anyone with leftist ideas (or anyone ethnic Chinese) – had to be got rid of, to save the nation. No detail is given and no-one dares ask. All the Indonesian crew are called ‘Anonymous’ in the film’s credits; Oppenheimer can’t risk going back there. But, as he managed to show the film to selected newspapers, intellectuals and pressure groups, the veil is finally being lifted and there is a head of steam to get an apology from the regime and maybe even start a reconciliation process. The gangsters no longer boast openly.

      I realise that this is a tough thing to get your head around. It’s a tough film to watch. But it is a brave, important film, made by a brave, highly intelligent and compassionate filmmaker. From the rest of the 1,400 hours of film he shot over five years, he is making a second non-fiction movie, focusing on one family of murdered ‘communist’ parents, and making available all his interviews for the country’s reconciliation process.

      PS. The gangsters The Act Of Killing focuses on started out their criminal career by scalping tickets for popular Hollywood movies. They got to love them and their ‘style’. Later, the army would drop off people for killing to an office opposite the cinema, so the gangsters would exit from the cinema, singing songs from an Elvis movie, and then happily trip over the road to beat up and strangle whoever the army supplied. Letting the gangsters give the ‘Hollywood treatment’ to their own story is both horribly apt and horribly revealing. It may actually be the very best way of depicting such horrendous events.

      • Hi Chris, thanks for the additional information. You are clearly able to write from a more informed perspective having seen the complete film and interviews whereas I made my comments on a short edited video clip.

        I acknowledge that Oppenheimer is clearly seeking to bring these abhorrent acts to the public’s attention, which is a commendable thing as they shouldn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the world and it is only through these type of programmes that a wider audience can see what actually happened and do something about it and potentially bring the perpetrators to justice and address the corrupt government officials that were complicit in the atrocities that occurred albeit many years after the events. Perhaps the second non-fiction movie will reveal whether the families affected see it this way.

        It’s right and proper that something like this is aired. I may feel that the portrayal is stylistic of a Hollywood production from the small piece I’ve seen but it least it has provoked debate and made a few more people aware of some of the events that are ‘swept under the carpet’ around the world.

    • No, I hadn’t. But I have now. Thanks.

      The way the film is presented is obviously controversial, and it is difficult to tell whether or not Anwar’s startling scene of realisation at the end is genuine or not (Oppenheimer believes it is, Errol Morris isn’t sure but likes that uncertainty), but there’s no doubt that its very existence has opened up a can of worms that desperately needed opening.

      btw, unless the UN gets involved and declares what happened to be war crimes, the killers will not be brought to justice. The statute of limitations in Indonesia guarantees that. Another reason why they could be so boastful.

  3. I haven’t seen this film yet but I will, I’ll see it soon when I reactivate my Netflix account. Netflix has a HUGE archive of films and documentaries and for $8 a month I regularly saw 8 videos a month! I need to re-subscribe.
    None of that’s relevant to this film, what is is the original structure that the film maker has chosen, I’ve been intrigued with that aspect since the film was first released, the idea of the perpetrators re-enacting the massacres, Hollywood style, it’s unbelievable but apparently it worked.
    There’s been quite a few documentaries that have succeeded because of a unique style or approach, The Thin Blue Line by Erroll Morris comes to mind, a terrific film with a unique structure. The Koyannasquatsi trilogy is another and then there’s all the films of Frederick Wiseman plus a plethora of music related documentaries, eg: Woodstock, Last Waltz, Don’t look Back, and Jazz on a Summers day, all interesting and all using unique approaches.

  4. Nice post Chris.

    I watched it a few months ago and was appalled and mesmerised at the same time. The re-enactment technique was a really original and powerful idea and seemed to have far more impact on the ‘gangsters’ than if they had just been ordinary talking head interviews.

    A definite must-see, but not an easy watch.

  5. Pingback: Another Difficult Watch | The 'Spill

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