Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2013

Fact versus fiction in three new films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

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 producer 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.


  1. I have an uncle who once told me that a friend of his in the Marine Corps was on board a Navy transport off the coast of Indonesia during the Vietnam War “in case we had to invade” (as he put it). He gave no political context to the story but did add an interesting bit: his friend in the Marine Corps aboard that ship remembered the horrendous ship-wide fights that broke out aboard after the Marines were given some drug that was supposed to increase aggression. In that era of the US government dosing people unawares, I don’t doubt the story.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — July 20, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

  2. There’s a difference between experiencing a film differently, and experiencing it wrongly. You suspect the Act of Killing of deception and outright fraud, yet you miss the directly addressed and potently obvious fact that those “poorly acted and scripted” reenactments were entirely under the creative control of Anwar and his posse. Oppenheimer requested they depict to him however they saw fit the means by which and circumstances in which they slaughtered “communists”. The production escalated. Also: For someone who just condemned his acting ability, you certainly grant Anwar a lot of faith to put-on in that final scene.

    Comment by Kyle Burton — July 21, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  3. I am interested to hear more of what seemed to rub you so badly in ‘The Act of Killing’. First off, I am most likely ideologically very in tune with you, and yet I found the film to be one of the most astonishing documentaries I have ever seen. That is primarily why I am curious to know of how it seemed to frustrate you so greatly. You say “glossy postmodernist web”. It seems like a rather curt dismissal. I find this doc to be anything but glossy, aside from the opening shots with the girls dancing, everything is quite low-fi. And even those saturated shots, I, with lack of film skills, can achieve on Final Cut Pro in 20 minutes. There is nothing technically sexy about this filmmaking. And what is a postmodernist web? I assume it it like my art theory class back in uni, in this film however, what we are being shown is simply the people that committed these crimes. How is this some postmodernist statement? Yes, the film inside a film makes things interesting from a cinema analysis perspective. But I found the act of “conning” them into making a film quite clever, and it most likely opened up new perspectives on the subjects than if they were sitting in a chair like McNamara. You found the fact that they were unaware of Oppenheimer’s true motives “fishy” because they were not tipped off by the low budget sets! Seriously? These people are obviously heinously deranged, uneducated thugs who’ve spent the majority of their lives living in an severely altered reality of their own construction, in the poorest of conditions. And because they didn’t notice that it was a 500$ camera instead of a 50,000$ one, or that the make-up effects were not up to Hollywood standards. I’m not sure about that assessment. I live in S.E. Asia, and the majority (not all) of films that come out of Indonesia and Malaysia are of the lowest technical quality. I, as well, identify with communist struggles despite their ill methods, but this film has nothing to do with communists. They are the victims yes, but the filmmaker(s) are so removed, ideologically and physically, that I doubt their intent was to project any political leanings. Therefore making all grievances about proper research, and which is a more blood curling tale of South East Asian horrors, moot. I viewed this film as an opportunity to gain a brief residence into the psychological pathways of a group of psychopaths. I think you said it yourself when you were discussing Herzog “In my view, this was a questionable choice of a “hero” even if it made for a fascinating character study.” Maybe it’s not a hero movie. Maybe it’s just a character study. Anyway, have a good day. I like you’re webpage. I would be interested to know what you think.

    Comment by fernando — July 21, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  4. This reporter for insideindonesia.org had the same reaction:

    There is no voice-over in the film. The protagonists seem to speak unprompted and undirected. Towards its end, however, the film portrays an incident which, to my mind, casts doubt on its apparent claim to present an unmediated portrait of the aged killer. Returning to the rooftop scene of the murders, Congo seems to experience remorse. Twice, he vomits discreetly into a convenient trough on the edge of the rooftop, before walking slowly and sadly downstairs. By this time in the film, Oppenheimer has made clear that Congo regarded him as a friend. Did Oppenheimer really just keep the cameras running and maintain his distance while his friend was in distress? Did Congo really think nothing of vomiting in front of the camera, under studio lights, and walking away as if the camera were not there? The incident seems staged.

    The sense of manipulation is all the stronger in those scenes that present the second story. Congo and his friends plan a film about their exploits in 1965-66, and The Act of Killing is interspersed with both excerpts from the finished film and scenes of prior discussion and preparation for the filming. Neither the plot nor the structure of this film-within-a-film is ever made clear. Instead we see extracts that are alternately vicious (torture scenes and the burning of a village) and bizarre. A fat gangster called Herman Koto appears repeatedly in drag, sometimes in a tight pink dress, sometimes in a costume recalling an extravagant Brazilian mardi gras. Some scenes resemble the American gangster films that Congo tells us he used to watch; some are more like the modern Indonesian horror-fantasy genre, complete with supernatural beings.

    full: http://www.insideindonesia.org/feature-editions/review-an-act-of-manipulation

    Comment by louisproyect — July 21, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

  5. Thanks for the link. Yes that is an intelligent review. However, I agree with some of the postings in the comments section, that, to me, that review is a little too academic, and sorely misses the point. Isn’t the bottom line to bring awareness to these horrors? The reviewer talk about the “condescension that Oppenheimer shows to the criminal noveau riche is unfortunate…”. Really? What is the need to go there? The filmmaker barely utters a word. In my mind he should be given a medal of honour for remaining as relatively impartial as he did, throughout the filming and after. The reviewer also says “The Act of Killing puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life.” How does it do this? It seems the reviewer is projecting upon the film something he himself is searching for. The film most definitely shows the killers as casually self-ndulgent and with little value for human life. Isn’t that the point? To make the leap to include Indonesians is ridiculous and erroneous. We don’t hear similar educated talks about Germans and Nazis. I also find it difficult in that review to understand how a Professor of Asian studies and politics, can judge the subjects with a measuring stick that seems to be crafted in a quaint town in rural Australia. These people in the film, are like nothing most people have ever seen. They operate on a totally different set of software than the majority of human beings. To “understand” them is impossible, although worth trying. To say they sound like teenage boys, his funny, but what they really sound like is killers with no sense of what the majority of the world calls conscience. I of course am interested in other opinions, but I find the poor reviews of this film all share a certain detached and cynical criticism. I will stick to my original impression and position that this is an amazing piece of filmmaking, and the people who undertook this extremely difficult and dangerous shoot have done an amazing job. May I ask, how should have Oppenheimer proceeded? As an artists/journalist, he sat out to film/document, and infiltrate a community of mass murderers and despicable human beings, have them speak openly an candidly about their crimes, and to bring attention to a subsection of the horrendously corrupt politics in Indonesia. In my eyes he succeeded. Bravo.

    Comment by fernando — July 21, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

  6. Most historians would argue that far from James Reston’s viewpoint that “It is doubtful if the coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam,” it was the other way round.

    The coup would not have happened without the (well-documented) intervention of the CIA, who supplied names of people to be killed, and of President Ford and Henry Kissinger who flew out of Jakarta the day before it happened. (Kissinger later became a director of Freeport, whose gold and copper mine in Papua is the world’s largest.)

    Pirated copies of The Act of Killing are being widely circulated in Indonesia, much like Russian samizdat, because there is little chance of it being shown officially when so many of the active killers and military ‘directors’ of the pogrom remain in power, or with family ties.

    President SBY, for example, is the son-in-law of the infamous Major General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo (http://www.stopimpunity.org/page93.php).

    Putting Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry – not Herman Koto who you cite – into present day context, the film shows the active supporting role of SBY’s first vice-president Jusuf Kalla and Pemuda Pancasila, still active as extra-legal thugs.

    This was my review: http://jakartass.net/2013/01/the-act-of-killing/ . It was written from the perspective of a resident of some 25 years. The traumas of 65/66 are long-lasting; my wife was a child in Medan in those years and remembers the food stall set up in front of their house for members of Pancasila Pemuda.

    Comment by Jakartass — July 22, 2013 @ 7:37 am

  7. Re: the final scene in Act of Killing,

    He wasn’t vomiting or pretending to vomit. He was coughing up shit, he probably has COPD or something.

    Comment by E — July 24, 2013 @ 3:28 am

  8. “Pirated copies of The Act of Killing are being widely circulated in Indonesia, much like Russian samizdat, because there is little chance of it being shown officially when so many of the active killers and military ‘directors’ of the pogrom remain in power, or with family ties.”

    Not only that, but the vast majority of the Indonesians who worked on the film are credited only as “Anonymous,” including one of the co-directors. So not only is it impossible for the film to be shown officially in the current Indonesian climate, simply working on it was considered sufficiently risky that most of the Indonesian participants are uncredited.

    Comment by Jean-Michel — July 24, 2013 @ 5:01 am

  9. You made up the reasons you don’t like this movie. I get it’s subjective regardless, but you can’t put all your eggs into the basket of “I don’t buy it.” That’s like saying Back To The Future is terrible because time travel doesn’t exist.

    Comment by Darwin — July 28, 2013 @ 7:11 am

  10. dude, it’s not the movie, it’s the events. What you (probably) hate is the events the movie depicted. I am a man from around those area depicted in the movie, who grew up in such “scumshit” area and lifestyle shown there. and if that was somehow a fake performance, I would be utterly surprised and might need to question the way I perceive reality around me, because right now, I confidently approve and confirm that the movie really depicted some real life events in real life settings around here, which is very very sad. If you can fully understand the Indonesian language in the movie and the context it was in, you will find that almost the whole movie was actually an “inside joke”, a really really bad one.
    a little insight about the coup (which failure eventually lead to another unrecognized coup) :
    that event wasn’t actually something that define or change Indonesian political stance and the mind of the people or whatever, hell it was actually an act to prevent such change, which would have lead to something equally un-cool, and it was a successful prevention. It may seem that the government (or whoever) have successfully “contained” the events and alter some facts, but it was actually a bit more complex. The situation is somewhat like “I know that you know that I know” but neither of “us” would open-up anything. but it wasn’t because of fear. it is either because “I” agree to the act conducted, or “I” simply don’t care. either way, we (indonesian people) are “fucked up” in the mind, and we always were. if you study Indonesian History (date back to hundred years from now), you will know that we Indonesian have a really different mind-sets from people on the other parts of the world, and we never really change or “learn” from it. and according to those mind-sets, this “killing-events” wasn’t actually supposed to be some big deal. contrary to some other governments, who try to covers some “big shit” as if it was no biggie, one of the former regime actually make a big deal out of something wasn’t supposed to be one to benefit from it. by naturally not seeing such events as a big deal, we show how “fucked up” our mind really are. and the fact that there was some people who altered this sick behavior to benefit from it just prove, that we can be even worse.

    Comment by fucked up retard — August 2, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

  11. I am genuinely shocked by this review, and another review by Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor. Ignoring the final scene, how can you explain the scene where where Anwar is overwhelmed after playing one of the victims, or when he watches the film footage? He is an amazing actor if those scenes were staged, give him the Oscar now. (by the way, it has been stated by the filmmaker that the scene of Anwar hacking and dry-heaving was shot near the beginning of filming, so they would have no need to fake this scene for a redemptive conclusion at this point because the story hasn’t even unfolded yet. the director put it at the end because of its power, which you could call a manipulation sure, but that doesn’t make it untrue). As for the re-enactments, as another user rightly pointed out, those scenes were conceptualized and carried out without the help or interference of Mr. Oppenheimer. The killers were making their own movie, and living out old fantasies as Hollywood movie fans. But most importantly of all is the impact of this movie. It has forced a country to reflect on themselves and see atrocity through news eyes, and it has forced the world to become aware of this forgotten history. This film has begun to alter an entire nation and provide an opportunity for healing through reconciling the past rather than continuing to avoid and ignore it. As a survivor of childhood trauma who spent many years avoiding my past and pretending it was no big deal, I know how important that opportunity is, because otherwise you stay numb to life, which has been the situation for many Indonesians for over 40 years. For those of us in the US, it gives us the opportunity for insight into our own actions as a country and our own blissful ignorance in many incidents in which we have participated (including this genocide in Indonesia). And as for the killers and the idea that this movie either glorifies them or lets them off the hook by ‘sympathizing’ with them, first of all they have been glorified in daily life by their government for decades and treated as heroes, the movie is only providing the tools and space to exaggerate this pre-existing glorification in order to point out the absurdity of it, and secondly, these killers are real people who felt compelled to follow horrible orders and have had to live with those actions ever since. To not be able to sympathize with Anwar in his moments of dark discovery is to pretend we are all better than him and incapable of such acts under similar circumstances. But reality has shown that ordinary people will do extraordinarily horrible things under authoritarian pressure again and again throughout history in many different cultures, countries, and circumstances. Killing is a dark part of human nature, and to pretend it isn’t is to lie to oneself and ignore reality. What makes people uncomfortable is not the filmmaker sympathizing with Anwar, but the part of themselves that wants to sympathize with Anwar, because that implies we might be capable of doing what he did.

    Comment by idreamofhari — August 15, 2013 @ 9:22 am

  12. Did you ever see the film called Game Over from 10 years ago? It’s a documentary starring Gary Kasparov and IBM’s Big Blue development team. I had some hang-ups with the storytelling but otherwise found it very intriguing. I’m not a chess player but I do work on computer software. If it’s accurate, it paints a cynical portrait of IBM’s participation in these “man vs. machine” events. Wish I had seen it before IBM entered “Watson” as a competitor on Jeopardy 2 years ago.

    Game Over is currently available on Netflix.

    Comment by aaron — December 15, 2013 @ 3:36 am

  13. Completely missed the whole point of The Act of Killing. Terrible review. Just stop watching movies from now on.

    Comment by F — January 23, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

  14. […] minutes has been seen in two other highly regarded films. The first is “Act of Killing” (https://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/), a film that Morris actually co-produced and that gives Indonesian death squad leaders a chance to […]

    Pingback by The Unknown Known; Watermark | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 4, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

  15. Or “how to miss the point of an entire movie”.

    Comment by spoojo — July 26, 2015 @ 10:11 am

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