Perhaps just by coincidence or perhaps as a reflection of the zeitgeist in the film world today, three movies premiered this week that straddled fact and fiction. “Act of Killing”, that has opened to rave reviews, is the documentary result of what might seem to be an American filmmaker’s conning of Indonesian mass murderers into believing that he was making a fiction film based on the 1965 anti-Communist massacres. Meanwhile, both “Computer Chess” and “Colossus” are mockumentaries in the style of “This is Spinal Tap”. What all these films have in common is exploiting serious issues in order to spin a glossy postmodernist web rather than deliver some prosaic and didactic lesson on, for example, the causes of the 1965 mass murder in Indonesia.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s “Act of Killing” that he describes as “a documentary of the imagination” opens with a totally mystifying but eye-dazzling scene of young and beautiful women dancing down a gangplank from what appears to be a huge fish toward an obese man in drag to some Indonesian pop tune. (See image above.) The man turns out to be Herman Koto, a militia leader who killed hundreds of Communists by his own admission.
Koto and Anwar Congo, another mass killer, are the “stars” of this specious film that the New York Times review describes as occupying the same space as Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, an interpretation that I would liken to comparing Adam Sandler to Charlie Chaplin.
The film consists of two hours or so of Koto, Congo, and a host of other death squad leaders reenacting their crimes for a film that Oppenheimer is supposedly going to produce for world audiences. The killers become both actors and assistant directors on the set, telling frightened villagers hired for a day of shooting to display more fear. Supposedly, Congo is a big film buff, having seen all sorts of gangster movies growing up that inspired him to use the techniques shown on screen to kill his Communist victims, including a piano wire garrote. I imagine that many of the people who go to see this movie because it is so “out there” will have a different reaction to the film than me, a person who identified with the Communists even if their idiotic strategy facilitated the coup.
A.O. Scott suggests that the facts behind the 1965 coup might not be so well known to the audience as those of other mass murders such as Pol Pot’s in Cambodia. It would have been useful if he called attention to what his paper was saying at the time. Blogging at the New Yorker magazine, Johan Weiner commented:
On June 19, 1966, James Reston published a column in the New York Times titled “A Gleam of Light in Asia.” Nearly two thousand Americans had died in Vietnam the year before, followed by six thousand more in 1966, and Reston, a Pulitzer Prize winner who would soon become the Times executive editor, sought to acknowledge “more hopeful political developments elsewhere in Asia.” He emphasized the case of Indonesia, which had recently undergone an elaborate and bloody regime change “from a pro-Chinese policy” to “a defiantly anti-Communist policy.” … Despite the savagery, Reston argued that Sukarno’s ouster was something about which Americans could feel not only optimistic (“control of this large and strategic archipelago is no longer in the hands of men fiercely hostile to the United States”) but proud. “It is doubtful if the coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam,” Reston wrote, “or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here.
That’s far more blood-curdling than anything in Oppenheimer’s flick.
Two of the executive producers reflect where Oppenheimer is coming from. One is Werner Herzog, who as much as I admire him, has a tendency to gravitate toward subjects who are outside of society’s norms. In one case, this has led him to direct a film lionizing an American jet pilot of German ancestry who was captured by the Vietnamese after his plane was shot down. In my view, this was a questionable choice of a “hero” even if it made for a fascinating character study.
Even more questionably, Errol Morris’s role as the other executive director brings to mind his documentary on Robert McNamara where the mass murderer was allowed to shed crocodile tears on camera. In contrast to McNamara, the killers of Oppenheimer’s film make jokes about what they did and are utterly unrepentant. At one point, one of the killers makes the same observation I once heard from Ward Churchill, namely that the winners of a war—such as they were—do not have to pay for their crimes.
Turning to the question of fact versus fiction, there’s something about “Act of Killing” that does not pass the smell test. The reenactment scenes are so poorly acted and scripted that anybody taking part in them would probably be winking to himself the whole time. The project would have made Ed Wood look like Orson Welles. I strongly suspect that the killers were in on the deception and went along with it anyhow. They had nothing to lose, especially from a Western imperialism that shares James Reston’s assessment that the killings were a good thing.
The last five minutes shows Anwar Congo up on a roof deck where he used to torture and kill people. In the course of describing his crimes, he suddenly begins to feel nauseous and the camera lingers on him as he dry heaves up nothing. I have a strong suspicion that he was faking it in order to make for a suitable redemptive conclusion. It cost nothing but it will certainly help Mr. Oppenheimer’s ticket sales since it makes his sordid enterprise more balanced than it really is.
“Act of Killing” is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City.
Since I didn’t read the publicist’s note carefully, I assumed that “Computer Chess” was a documentary about the development of the earliest versions of the software that I literally spend an hour on each day ever since I got my first computer—a Mindset—in 1986, just 6 years after the events depicted in the film took place. I thought there would be serious interviews with computer programmers and chess masters.
In the first ten minutes of the film, I had no reason to think that it was other than what I expected. The clothing and the eyeglasses and the clunky machines, filmed in primitive black-and-white video, struck me as authentic. But maybe a bit too authentic as it is on “Mad Men”.
But when the characters began getting involved with drug deals and sex trysts, I figured out that this was a fictional film made to look like a documentary. The capper was an encounter group that was holding its meetings in the same room where a machine versus grand master competition was being held. The encounter group was portrayed as even sillier than it was in reality back when they were fashionable.
What is utterly lacking in the entire film is a look at how chess software works, something that would have intrigued me. Instead it was an affectionate if a bit patronizing look at the geeks who were supposedly the heroic vanguard of a technological revolution. It was a character study—with the emphasis on character—not that different from the one found in “Act of Killing”. The emphasis is on characters getting on their freak.
Like “Act of Killing”, this film has garnered very good reviews. It is showing now at the Film Forum.
Finally, there’s “Colossus”, a fictional film about the making of a documentary of an “artificial” rock band in post-Soviet Russia under the auspices of one Clark Larson, a Brit who has been living there for 17 years. But it turns out that Larson is actually an American who is putting on an act. In fact the entire movie is a meditation on putting on an act.
The plot revolves around Larson’s struggle to make the movie, which is constantly dealing with challenges from the impromptu band he has assembled over directions to take, Russian gangsters who want to muscle in on the film and the band which has been gaining popularity, his wife’s opposition to what amounts to a hare-brained scheme, and finally the ordinary artistic and financial problems involved with making a film. This last matter is what interested me as a one-man production company.
Clearly, the director Mark Hendrickson, who plays Larson, is fascinated with the truth versus fiction tension. There are segments in the film where he walks down a mysterious looking tunnel philosophizing about such matters. It may ring a bell to anyone who has seen Orson Welles’s documentary “F for Fake” will know where Hendrickson got his inspiration. Trust me, Welles is a lot better at this sort of thing.
“Colossus” is now playing at the Quad.