Day one of SXSW Film and I hit the ground running. I saw three films. Two of them were quite clearly about sadism, one was about copyright law, and all three were about crime. And they couldn’t have been more different from each other.
By far the most powerful and disturbing of the three was the first one of the day, The Act of Killing. A documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer about a group of Indonesian men, now retired, who were death squad leaders after the military overthrew the Indonesian government in 1965, and have not, as of yet, been held accountable for their crimes.
It’s difficult to explain this film. The filmmaker’s approach was to get the killers to talk about what they did, but clearly they did not want to provide “testimony” for a documentary. Instead they told their story by making it into a “fictional” movie starring themselves. Almost like a dramatization of the things they did, and they took the filmmaker along to do research for the roles.
The primary focus of the film is a man called Anwar, who is considered the founding father of the paramilitary organization that evolved from those death squads (many current government leaders are part of this paramilitary organization along with 3 million Indonesian youths). He describes in a matter of fact way, with no evident sign of remorse, the methods he used for killing those accused of communism in his country (this included many ethnic Chinese and intellectuals). We come to see, gradually, that Anwar is haunted by nightmares and only through the making of this movie about what he has done does he come to realize why.
But he seems to be the only one that looks on his past with any regret (though it’s clear there is a huge amount of rationalization and dehumanizing of others going on in their heads). The others talk about what the public’s perception of them will be after they release the film. They fear people will realize they lied about the “communists” being cruel, and it was in fact THEY who were the cruel ones. Some said they should boast about the massacres in order to ensure the public remains afraid of them. And the public IS afraid of them, so much so that they have great difficulty in finding “actors” to portray communists in the film, for fear that they will be thought of as real communists.
But they do get some people, including women and children, to reenact a scene where a village is raided and burned down. The fear and trauma on the children’s faces, both during and after the scene was shot, at least to me, was real. It was difficult to watch. I found my mind wandering during the film and I wonder if it wasn’t a way for me to cope with what I was seeing on the screen.
There were many bizarre things in this film that all seem to circulate back to the fact that these men, in general, don’t feel like they have done anything wrong. They call themselves “gangsters” and believe the word comes from the American word meaning “free men”. Anwar decides to put in scenes that depict the dreams he is having, lending an even more surreal quality to the film, as well as the small amount of levity that came for me primarily because of the overload of cognitive dissonance I was experiencing.
Unlike a lot of documentaries, this one doesn’t lead you down a path to the documentarian’s conclusion. It is a little unclear at times what is happening or how the different stories relate to the bigger picture (e.g. Herman’s unsuccessful run for Indonesian parliament feels tacked on as an afterthought). I am still not sure if this is a strength or weakness for the film, but regardless, the subject matter is so strong and so important I almost feel that the films structure doesn’t matter, almost. The emotional impact cannot be denied. I left the theater feeling stunned, like my surroundings were the set of an elaborate dream, and I felt very, very lucky to have been born in the time and place I was born in.
The Act of Killing is being distributed by Drafthouse Films, a brave choice for them in my opinion.
Check out the trailer here:
Next up was TPB – AFK: The Pirate Bay – Away From Keyboard. This movie was also a challenge, but for different reasons. Structurally this documentary was extremely well done. There is a clear story being told. It follows the three founders of The Pirate Bay website, and their copyright trial in Sweden. Regardless of where you might stand on the issue of current copyright law, the film brings forth an important cultural conversation. Information and culture should be free and accessible. Current copyright law actually stifles creativity. The public demands to consume media in a certain way and the industry is refusing to change to meet consumer demand, which is unprecedented and will ultimately be to their great disadvantage.
The documentary, though, isn’t so much about the conversation. It’s about the founders of The Pirate Bay. And my take away from the film was ultimately that I don’t really care for these guys. Maybe they really are culture warriors. Maybe they really are great guys fighting for a cause. I agree with some of what they are saying and doing, but they are so pretentious about it that I can’t really like them as people, which is fine. I don’t have to like them. They don’t speak well for themselves (except Peter, their unofficial spokesperson, but even Peter could be doing it better). I feel like maybe they might not have been convicted if they really had someone who better understood the cultural consequence of current copyright law AND was able to clearly spell it out for the courts, who clearly don’t understand (or do understand and want to exploit it, as demonstrated by the discovery of the judge’s clear conflict of interest). The doc does a pretty good job of showing how inept they were at their own defense.
The film’s creator, Simon Klose, has released the full film under a creative commons license on The Pirate Bay and other BitTorrent sites. If you would like to financially support the film you can purchase a DVD for $23 or a digital download for $10. I was unable to stay for the entire Q&A after the film but it seemed a large part of the discussion revolved around how to create a new business model in which artists can receive compensation for their work in a fair way. There are many ideas out there. As of now the filmmaker does not know which, if any, of those ideas will work. Neither do I.
Check out the trailer:
The midnight show was called Cheap Thrills. The story is a pretty basic one. A tale of how far down a road will someone go if they are desperate enough. Craig is seriously down on his luck, and while he is wallowing in his self pity, an “opportunity” that could solve all his money problems presents itself, if he does just a few things that may require him to ignore, you know, morality. He certainly doesn’t HAVE to do these things, he can leave whenever he wants. But he’s trapped by his circumstances, and with such an easy way out, just within his grasp? Why not? Admittedly the movie is a tad predictable at first, but this predictability is a trap set to lure you into a false sense of security… A false web woven to make you think this is just another film using a tired premise as an excuse for gratuitous violence. And I totally fell for it.
When Craig and his buddy, Vince, submit to be the pawns in a game devised by a wealthy couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), the first few rounds were nothing new to anyone who’s seen Four Rooms, Indecent Proposal or JackAss. But then shit takes a turn for the dark. And I mean dark. I totally saw it coming, but not like this. And the fact that they were able to surprise me (and judging from the sounds from the audience, most of them too) is what is really going for this movie.
But beyond that, David Koechner was absolutely the best part of this film. Without him I don’t think it would have worked as well, if at all. He played his sadistic, bordering on sociopathic, character as if he was just this happy go-lucky rich guy having a midlife crisis. He’s your best friend that loves to party and throw money around. Nothing is taken to seriously, everything a joke, everything’s cool, man…
The only film credentials of the writers or director that I’m familiar with is Trent Haaga’s connection to Troma Films. Beyond that I’ve seen nothing of their work before, but it’s steeped heavily in the horror world. And two of the stars, Pat Healy and Sara Paxton were fresh off of The Innkeepers, a Fantastic Fest favorite. So horror lovers should keep this film on their radar. And btw, it just got picked up by Drafthouse Films, so Austinites, it’s coming.
One recommendation, if you see this movie at The Alamo Drafthouse, order lots of drinks, but don’t eat. It gets kinda gross.
Check out the trailer: