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Behind Joshua Oppenheimer's Genocide Documentary 'The Act of Killing' -- Where Are the Survivors?

Festivals
by John Anderson
March 19, 2013 2:04 PM
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"The Act of Killing"

When New Directors/New Films opens Wednesday night at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, it will mark another ambitious survey of fresh talent and movies, beginning with the D.C.-sniper inspired “Blue Caprice” (its catalog description begins: “The ability of innocence to embrace evil is a chillingly reality"--and yes, someone was paid to write that). Guaranteed to grab ND/NF audiences by the throat – just as it’s been doing since last year’s Telluride – is “The Act of Killing,” (TOH! review here) directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, who cast his movie with real killers who celebrate the art and craft of murder.

The backstory – the murder of up to 3 million suspected Communists in 1965 Indonesia – was perpetrated by the very people who star in Oppenheimer’s movie, and who are seen attempting to make a movie of their own, starring themselves. What troubled some viewers when “Act of Killing” began its festival run was that Oppenheimer facilitated the making of the extravagant feature film we see in production. 

But matters aren’t quite that simple: The movies were an essential element in the massacres in Indonesia. For one thing, the so-called Indonesian “movie gangsters” of 1965 held a grudge against the left for its boycott of American movies, which they loved. And when the killings started, the perpetrators drew both inspiration and technical guidance from Hollywood for the ways they mass-murdered their fellow Indonesians. The idea that Oppenheimer cooked up for his own cinematic outrage isn’t quite as simple as it sometimes seemed.

“Josh gave them a car and said ‘Why don’t you go for a ride?’” said “Act” lead editor, Niels Pagh Andersen. “But they decided where to go.”

Last week, in a Nepalese restaurant in Helsinki, the celebrated Danish editor (who lives here with the Finnish film composer Sanna Salmenkallio), talked about not wanting to do the film at all.

“At first, I escaped by practical reasons,” said Andersen, noting that he would have had to be away from home for a considerable time. “But the editor in me saw that it’s amazing material, and it’s a gift in that way. But it’s one of the most complicated films I’ve been on because it has so many narrative lines -- what happened then, what happens now, a character who develops, a side character who doesn’t, their relationship, a narrative about storytelling. And how their fantasy about storytelling gets wilder and wilder.”

“Act” has more than a little bit of the fantastical about it – players in drag, an enormous fish, graphic description of murder by strangulation, and a suffocating lack of remorse. What it doesn’t really have is victims, or their survivors.

“We discussed this very much,’ he said. “How are human beings able to kill another human being? It is when you dehumanize the other – “you’re a Communist, you’re a Muslim, you’re a Nazi, you’re different from me.” And what we were trying to do is show that the evil is part of being human. If we brought in the victims we would just make the killer into monsters. Of course, they are monsters, but we are trying also to show aspects of them that are human, too.”

And the footage of the survivors?  “That movie,” Andersen said, “we start in April.”

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