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The Act of Killing

24 Jan

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Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous

Stars: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin

Motion Picture Rating: NR

Runtime: 115 minutes

 

I have watched a lot of films, I still love doing so, but I am too rarely surprised by them. I try not to prejudge, but often my knowledge of the basic plot, the cast and crew and my experience of the trailer provokes subconscious comparisons that can be hard to shake. It is the ‘curse’ of the film critic. However, when a film does come along like The Act of Killing it is a truly thrilling experience. It makes all of the painful, forced and insulting movies fade into the background and reaffirms my belief that film-making is the most essential modern art form. This film did that and more. It is a vital piece of cinema and without a doubt one of the best films that I have ever seen.

Joshua Oppenheimer spent a long time in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia producing this documentary. He immersed himself in the communities, learnt the language and he researched in great detail. The film that emerged from his exhaustive investigation is not what was imagined by him and is certainly not a traditional documentary, but it is sublime. He allowed the film to take shape around the subjects that he followed and their journey into darkness is profound and unexpected. Of them it is Anwar Congo, gangster, executioner and celebrity that the camera focuses on.

Anwar Congo was a low level gangster in 1965 in the city of Medan who transitioned from selling black market cinema tickets to leading a death squad that tortured and murdered thousands of citizens. The military overthrow of Sukarno’s left-leaning and anti-imperialist government set those wheels in motion. Congo and his buddies took what they learnt at the local picture house – lots of American gangster and cowboy movies – and applied it to the coup. They were feared, feted and promoted during a period of extreme violence. Today Congo and the others remain popular and proud of their murderous past. There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for Indonesia and the failure to deal head on with the genocide makes this film so powerful. Oppenheimer somehow manages to get Anwar Congo and cronies to discuss, debate and to re-enact their crimes.

1 million people were killed in 1 year by paramilitaries and gangsters as Suharto ousted Sukarno in 1965. To this day the military and the gangsters are still in power in Indonesia – hence Congo and his group of ageing death squad members remain popular (as “history is written by the winners” as one of them tells Oppenheimer). It is a unique and unsettling situation. This documentary captures that by giving those winners a voice. They describe their torture techniques and justify their actions. The current leaders applaud them and many encourage discussion of the ‘open secret’. They tell us many times that the word gangster actually means free man. Their perspective and the film scrambles your mind.

The cruelty and barbarism that is re-enacted by the participants during the documentary is very disturbing. Genocide is the blackest of holes. It is mankind with no humanity. To have it explained, debated and joked about is almost too much for the senses and yet this is The Act of Killing. Congo looks straight into the lens and describes how hacking people to pieces produced too much blood so strangulation became a preferred method of execution. At times the retired gangsters dress up and act out scenes of interrogation and torture for the camera. At those points the word surreal almost doesn’t cover it. One of the gang – fat, sweaty, dim-witted and menacing – takes female roles in the amateur productions and happily slaps on the make-up and piles into sequined dresses. Quite simply, I have never seen anything like this. Has anyone?

The journey that Anwar Congo goes on in contributing to The Act of Killing changes him. You can see it happening as, for example, he tells the director that he realizes how his squad’s use of torture took away victims’ dignity. Congo faces up to his past, tries to brazen his way through it, but can’t outrun the ghosts that he’s created. The final scene, where he revisits one of the slaughter houses, is almost too much for him to bear and it has stayed with me since I saw it more than a week ago. It is incredibly powerful. And Oppenheimer handles it so very well.

This is a strange, fascinating, dark and disturbing piece of cinema. The director deserves enormous credit for two specific achievements that I will close on. Firstly, the film breaks many film conventions with success. For example, Oppenheimer mixes the dry traditional documentary style with some jaw-dropping cinematic flashes of brilliance. Secondly, the film examines a topic that is extremely important, but rarely broached. That is the support for torture and genocide that citizens of war torn countries can readily supply. That is happening today in Syria, in Sudan and elsewhere. Military backed coups and dictatorships continue around the world to suck in all manner of local ‘gangsters’ to murder and maim in their cause. Sadly there are still men like Anwar Congo turning on their neighbours.

Marley

13 Oct

 

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Stars: Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley and Jimmy Cliff

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 144 minutes

 

 

For all that has been reported about the late Bob Marley I found myself watching this documentary rather embarrassed by my lack of actual knowledge. Maybe we all feel that we know Nesta Robert Marley because of those amazing songs – No Woman No Cry, Buffalo Soldier, One Love etc. – and his high profile position as the face of Rastafarianism. I thought that I had a line on it all, but kudos to film-maker Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland) for going into such depth here and for gaining the trust and support of Bob’s family. As with the phenomenal documentary Senna, it is the private family archives that really lift this film on to another level – that and the music which remains special.

Bob was born in a Jamaican village in 1945 to mixed race parents. He did not get to know his father, a man from Sussex, England who claimed to be a Captain in the Royal Marines, but remained very close to his mother and extended family. At 14 Bob left school and focused on music. He recorded his first singles by age 17 and went on to form The Wailers with Bunny Wailer (his step brother) and Peter Tosh. Bob and his collaborators played some rock, a lot of ska and settled on reggae. That music suited his poetic lyric writing and his burgeoning beliefs in the Rastafari movement for which he became a figurehead. Reggae music is what Bob Marley is known for and he, as a solo artist, with The Wailers and other collaborators, produced the greatest reggae music of all time.

This documentary is a straight chronological biography of Marley (as well, importantly, as a study of Jamaica in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s). It is evidently made with a lot of love and reverence for the subject and it is blessed with that splendid archive footage and candid interviews from Bob’s family and friends. It is a comprehensive and insightful study. I found it interesting and very entertaining. It made me re-appraise Marley and my respect for him grew as a result. He was and remains a legend of a musician, he clearly touched almost all who met him, and his words, music and deeds live on some 30 years after his death.

Project Nim

23 Feb

Director:James Marsh

Stars:Bob Angelini, Nim Chimpsky and Bern Cohen

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 93 minutes

 

 

 

James Marsh, and his team, has delivered another excellent documentary. After the thrilling 2008 Man on Wire comes this fascinating account of the life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. In a story that no doubt inspired last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this documentary charts the life of Nim from birth (1973) to death (2000) and his role in a nature versus nurture experiment to teach a chimpanzee sign language.

Nim’s story and this documentary starts with the experiment as run by Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. Nim is taken at birth from a compound in Oklahoma, transported to New York, and handed over to a family picked by Terrace. The aim is to try to teach Nim sign language and to try to assimilate the chimpanzee into a human family. It is the early 1970’s and such an authority defying experiment seems fitting. However, once Nim gets big and strong at 5 years old the experiment is curtailed. At that point Nim has shown the odd flash of animalistic and dangerous behaviour. What follows is the even more extraordinary and sad story of Nim as he is passed between wildlife parks, research labs and animal sanctuaries.

Nim’s story is fascinating and I was spellbound by it. What it tells us about animal capabilities and how it answers the nature versus nurture argument is not clear. What is clear is the impact that Nim has on the humans that he interacts with. The teachers, handlers and support staff are as much in the spotlight as Nim and each one reveal a range of human traits as Nim and they get older through the documentary. At times the human and animal line is perfectly blurred. This is a splendid piece of documentary film-making.

Senna

31 Dec

Director: Asif Kapadia

Writer: Manish Pandey

Stars: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Frank Williams

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 106 minutes

 

 

Senna is the first official documentary about the late Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian superstar of the racing circuit died in his car in 1994 at the San Marino grand prix. This film covers his F1 odyssey from his first races in 1984 through the multiple championship wins and to the tragic events at Imola.

This is a stunning documentary. It is both tragic and life-affirming. There is an enormous amount of previously unseen footage that’s included and the result is a truly insightful look into the finer details of F1 as it became a highly valuable and global sport. For Senna the emergence of Formula 1 as a commercial behemoth was tinged with regret and sadness; he decries the politics and corruption of the sport on a number of occasions. Some of those outbursts are directed at the F1 supremo at the time (Balestre) and some at the leading driver during the mid 1980’s (Prost) and Senna’s sparring with them both is a central theme.

Senna was a superstar of his sport and for all of the right reasons; he was incredibly fast, he pushed himself and his car to the limits in every race, and he became a champion whilst retaining a huge amount of humility and grace. Brazilians adored him during a period of extreme internal upheaval and Senna went on to do a lot for his people. He was a sporting great and this amazing documentary honours him well. And the thrilling on car footage of Senna driving in the city circuit of Monaco in 1988 is unlike anything I have ever seen in any form of racing.

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