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Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With 'The Act of Killing'

By Jill Godmilow | Indiewire March 5, 2014 at 3:49PM

"I write here to start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none."
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Act of Killing Anwar neck

Be Fair to Your Social Actors

With gentle encouragement from the director, the movie gangsters of Medan serve themselves up as willing subjects to be consumed. There is a pining for the spotlight, for the opportunity to exhibit their power. However, to “empower” social actors in documentary, when the “actors” don’t realize how they will be seen on the world stage (in this film as immoral, grotesque, juvenile and pathetic) is a questionable practice. Many times over we have witnessed, on film and elsewhere, debased, paramilitary mad men in the pay of power. There is nothing new here about these particular criminals – nothing except their ignorance of their own exploitation in the cinema.

The writer, Jeremy Mohler, has suggested that Anwar Congo, the central figure in the film, might have been pleased to tell his tales to an American filmmaker, as he and his mates were hugely enamored of the American action films that were banned by Sukarno’s left leaning government in the 60’s. Mohler writes, “Congo and his buddies resemble the lower-level gangsters in The Sopranos (1999-2007), eager to please the bosses but unaware of the larger games being played above them.” Because Congo’s corrupt bosses received funding, weaponry, manpower and kill lists from the CIA, Congo might have understood, naively, that the American documentary director would thus be delighted with his lurid accounts of murder, since that’s just what the U.S. aid was paying for.  I base this speculation on Yngvesson’s account of Congo’s sense of betrayal on seeing the finished film.

There is nothing new here about these particular criminals.

Yet a few months after the highly successful launch of Oppenheimer’s film at several major Western film festivals, in an Al Jazeera follow-up report inspired by “The Act of Killing” (Vaessen 2012), Congo weeps during a Skype conversation with his former admirer, who is now safely back in Europe: “I very much feel that what you’ve produced has made things very difficult for me.” Oppenheimer indicates that he understands Anwar’s predicament, but assures Congo that he will never forget his bravery in opening his story to the world, revealing “how people can commit evil acts.”

Oppenheimer has indeed succeeded in documenting, and drawing mass attention to, a predicament both uniquely horrifying, and, at the same time, rather typical in the discourse of the Third World: that of gross human rights violations, and, in this case, genocide, at the hands of a corrupt regime and its supporters. The film is thus both problematic and also potentially powerful as a local political tool, depending on the context in which it is shown and what other sources of information viewers have to process its sweeping claims.

Congo, having heard Oppenheimer out via Skype, says nothing, but instead raises himself, still streaming tears, and walks away, leaving laptop and camera alone in the room. For him, and Indonesia, there will be no ending scene, plane ticket home, or “180 degree turn” that leads to an unambiguous truth.

Oppenheimer has said, on the record, that he would be in danger if he returned to Indonesia…in danger, perhaps, from the government, but maybe from the gangsters themselves.

This article is related to: The Act of Killing , Joshua Oppenheimer, Awards Season, Spirit Awards, Oscar Academy Award, Spirit Awards, Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries





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