Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Act of Killing

Will someone get Errol Morris on the phone, please? 
I want to know what attracted a filmmaker of his caliber and reputation (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) into executive producing Genocide: The Musical, also known as The Act of Killing, starring Anwar Congo and his kooky death squad buddies.
NO! I have not yet seen this film. Has anybody? I won’t be going to the Toronto International Film Festival to see the premiere, but I still want to know what motivated Mr. Morris to executive produce this bizarre film.  
I would like to know what the pitch session was like. What did director Joshua Oppenheimer say to Mr. Morris?
Joshua: So Errol, we’ve got this great premise where we take brutish, unrepentant, sociopathic mass murderers and ask them to act out their infamous kills, Hollywood style.  That’s right, Errol. These shameless but whacky guys are eager to write the scripts based on actual murders they committed in Indonesia in the 60s. They’ll need proper costuming, makeup, fancy sets, of course.  That’s where you come in.   

Errol: Tell me more…

Joshua:   We film them reenacting their actual murders, but with TOTAL artistic license. Film noir. Spaghetti western.  You name it. I’m telling you that no dramatic genre is sacred.  I mean the whole thing is going wind up being one big reality show – I mean documentary.

Errol: Will there be musical numbers, Joshua?

Joshua: There could be. Why not?

So my question to you, Mr. Morris is this: what part of that premise sounded like a good documentary idea to you?  I’m curious. 

Let’s look at the backstory of The Act of Killing. In Indonesia in 1965, Anwar Congo was a small time thug and big time Hollywood film enthusiast who ingratiated himself with army death squad leaders by selling them black market movie tickets.  

Tired of the onerous task of doing their own killing, these army leaders recruited Anwar and his friends to carry out the murders of thousands of intellectuals, communists and ethnic Chinese and Indonesian citizens at odds with the military. In this nasty piece of Indonesian history millions were killed.  

How did all this turn out?  Death Squad veteran, Anwar Congo, has put day-day murdering behind him and has long since become part of the right-wing establishment in Indonesia, and now, thanks to director Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directors Christine Cynn and Anonymous, he is a movie star too.  Oops. Credit goes to that way-out Errol Morris too. Oh and Werner Hertzog - long story.  And yes, there really is a co-director credit for Anonymous. What does that tell you?

According to press materials found on IMDB, “Anwar Congo and his friends have been dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodeling cowboys.”

 And this from the film’s web site: “THE ACT OF KILLING is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.”

I know. Where did I put my open mind? Seriously, I have long ago abandoned the notion that I have to like a film to appreciate its value.  I teach films that I like a lot, including Mr. Death by Mr. Morris, and films I dislike a lot, including Fog of War, also by Mr. Morris.  Send me a screener, Mr. Morris.  I’ll take a look at The Act of Killing. I will. 

Readers: You can forget about seeing the trailer until after the film premieres at the prestigious 2012 Toronto International Film Festival this September 6-16. If you go to Toronto and see the film, please write and tell me what you thought.  

To be fair, I have included the director’s statement in toto. 
By director Joshua Oppenheimer

"The Act of Killing reveals why violence we hope would be unimaginable is not only imagined, but also routinely performed. It is an effort to understand the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles. It is a call to reexamine easy reassurances that we are the good guys fighting the bad guys, just because we say so.

Some viewers may desire resolution by the end of the film, a successful struggle for justice that results in changes in the balance of power, human rights tribunals, reparations, and official apologies. The film alone cannot create these changes, but this desire has been our inspiration as well, as we seek to shed light on the darkest chapters of both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience, and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not a story about Indonesia. This is a story about us all."
Wait – Wait - Wait.  What was that last part? This is a story about all of us? See now, Joshua, that’s where you get me mad. Will someone Errol Morris back on the phone? 

Note to self: Cancel the bucket trip to Indonesia. These guys are still alive and still in charge. 
 As always, thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.


  1. Interesting that you would have such a strong reaction without any clue as to what the film shows? Makes one wonder why?

    1. I tend to be a purist. If you have a story, film it honestly. Hearing how they created these highly stylized reenactments makes me squeamish given the subject. Thanks for writing.