Tag Archives: B

THE ACT OF KILLING

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B

It’s difficult not to be ambivalent about “The Act of Killing,” a documentary that reveals the horrors of the Indonesian campaign against communists and other “undesirables” like ethnic Chinese, which extends back for decades but is still being waged by powerful paramilitary groups. But it does so from the perspective of self-styled “gangsters” who were among the most vicious perpetrators in the initial stages of the operation in 1965-66 and are now making a movie dramatizing what they did (they’re all big fans of Hollywood movies and try to emulate them)—as well as continuing their corrupt activities.

On the one hand, publicizing the grotesque deeds of the murderers has a certain salutary effect, even if they’re beyond legal punishment. But watching them live out their days in comfort and—for the most part—smug contentment is galling. And when the film shows one of them haunted by what he’s done, even if only sporadically, it moves in the direction of sympathy for the killers along with their victims that’s deeply unsettling. (Indeed, in their film they sometimes play their victims, suggesting a convergence between killer and killed that’s morally repugnant.) The imbalance is accentuated by the fact that the only victims we actually see are Chinese shopkeepers being shaken down by the gangsters; there’s no actual footage of the events of nearly half a century ago, or interviews with survivors or their relatives and friends.

Of course, disturbing us is what the picture—directed by Joshua Oppenheimer—is all about. “The Act of Killing” is a shocking exhibition of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil—or, in this case, the absurdity of evil. The principal focus is on Anwar Congo, an elderly, genteel fellow who, along with his gruffer, heavier colleague Herman Koto, describes how they transformed themselves from penny-ante crooks scalping movie tickets to hardened killers instrumental in the liquidation of hundreds, if not thousands. (Estimates of the total number of “disappeared” in the Indonesian slaughter range from half a million to more than two and a half million.) He’s particularly proud of inventing a method of execution with a wire noose that was extremely efficient while resulting in less bloodletting—and clean-up—than other methods.

Congo, Koto and their associates—including a publisher who identified people for interrogation that inevitably led to execution—are generally eager to talk about what they did, arguing that it was absolutely necessary for the safety of the state. And in sequences that are frequently bizarre, featuring dancers emerging out of the mouth of a statue shaped like a fish, Herman donning a flamboyant red dress and Carmen Miranda headgear, and Congo posing in a long robe in front of a waterfall—as well as recreating torture scenes and a massacre at a village—they demonstrate how they’re memorializing their accomplishments on celluloid. They appear on TV talk shows to discuss their project with smiles, feeling no apparent need to offer any justification. There’s a surrealistic tone to it all, especially since we’re also shown government ministers openly courting the militias that arose out of their actions and continue to abuse the population in the present day.

And yet there are strangely discordant moments in which some subjects pull back from the general sense of enthusiasm for the killing while preening about their role in it. An official wonders whether the graphic recreation of a mass slaughter will tarnish the image of the Pancasila paramilitary group that conducted it, although he then opines that they could have been even more brutal. An old associate of Congo’s, who cynically notes that history is written by the winners, who determine what’s right and wrong, also points out that by dramatizing what they did, they might encourage sympathy for the victims, whom they’ve always described as the cruel ones. A lower-ranking member of the gang recounts the murder of a relative in a hysterically giddy recitation while suggesting in might be written into the script. And the film closes by juxtaposing a scene in which Congo brings his little grandsons into his family room to watch footage of a sequence in which he plays a torture victim with another in which he revisits the place where he killed the actual ones and begins gagging uncontrollably over the recollection.

What’s to be made of this? “The Act of Killing” opens with a quotation from Voltaire, who noted that murder is something that must be punished—unless it’s mass murder done for the “public good,” in which case it’s glorified. That certainly seems the case with the Indonesian massacres, which the perpetrators, and the nation, have never had to confront as moral atrocities. Does Oppenheimer intend his film to be at least the beginning of the sort of reexamination that could exorcize some of the country’s demons? Or is it merely a confirmation of the fact that, as Agatha Christie opined in the title of one of her mysteries, “Murder is Easy”?

Whatever the intent, “The Act of Killing” is neither easy to watch or to unpack. But it will certainly not leave you unmoved, though the feelings it engenders will be complicated.

STILL MINE

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There’s more than a hint of Hallmark Hall of Fame in Michael McGowan’s fact-based film about a crusty old man who falls afoul of bureaucratic red tape when he determines to build a new house for his Alzheimer-afflicted wife. But the performances of James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold are so skilled that they elevate what might have simply been sentimental claptrap into something rather touching and even profound. It never generates the wrenching emotional power of “Amour” or “Away from Her”—two recent films it inevitably calls to mind. But its quiet poignancy is quite moving in itself.

Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, an elderly farmer living near the tiny town of St. Martin’s in New Brunswick, Ontario. He has his hands fairly full with his few head of cattle, the fact that his strawberry crop has been rejected because of lack of refrigerated transport and general upkeep on the place. But he still insists on doing everything himself, rejecting any help from his grown children John (Rick Roberts) and Ruth (Julie Stewart) who live nearby, or from neighbors Chester and Margaret Jones (George R. Robertson and Barbara Gordon).

There’s a strong reservoir of tenderness, however, in the self-reliant man’s attention for his failing wife Irene (Bujold). He can be sharp with her when her memory fails or she neglects food boiling on the stove, but that’s just a matter of his refusal to recognize how serious her condition has become; and when she falls on the stairs, he rearranges their cluttered house to make things easier for her. And going further, he decides to construct a small, one-storey place for them on a plot of their land overlooking the bay. A skilled woodworker whose father, a shipbuilder, taught him well, he’s determined to build the place himself as an obvious labor of love, employing only his little grandson to take some measurements for him.

Unfortunately, he runs into municipal regulations that require blueprints, pre-approval of materials and strict adherence to building codes, not to mention expensive permits. His failure to comply leads the rule-obsessed inspector (Jonathan Potts) to order him to stop construction, and though his long-time lawyer Gary (Campbell Scott) offers advice about dealing with the municipal boards and, eventually, the courts, his case seems hopeless—until…. Well, the outcome won’t be revealed here, but rest assured it’s a heartwarming one, even if as presented it’s curiously fragmentary.

In any event, the more important part of the story is the relationship between Craig and Irene, which Cromwell and Bujold play to perfection. He’s the very image of stony but genteel stubbornness, and her fluttery fragility complements it movingly. Some of their scenes together are remarkable for their perception, such as the one in which they undress in front of one another, and all exhibit an easy familiarity that persuades us that they’ve been married for sixty years and still deeply in love.

Apparently taking a cue from the adjective in the title, McGowan’s direction is the very definition of unhurried. That has the virtue of allowing the performances to breathe, and Cromwell in particular takes advantage of it. The deliberate pace and generally understated air make his occasional outbursts all the more powerful, and the scene when Irene suffers an episode after an evening drive all the more striking.

The secondary performances –including Scott’s—are naturalistic and unforced, and visually the film is fine, with Brendan Steacy’s unpretentious cinematography taking advantage of the Quebec locations. The music, by Hugh Marsh, Don Rooke and Michelle Willis, is unobtrusively supportive.

Thanks to stellar work from Cromwell and Bujold, “Still Mine” etches a moving portrait of the enduring love of a couple whose life together only appears to be ordinary.