How I love Sheffield Doc Fest, when Jarvis Cocker’s city is descended on by some of the key thinkers, philosophers, scientists, politicians and activists of our time. This year the festival was opened by the great man himself with The Big Melt, a one off performance at the Crucible Theatre, which included a film documenting 100 years of stainless steel accompanied by a live sound track.

The line up of other films was equally impressive, highlighting the increasing success of the festival, which is now celebrating it’s 20th year.  However, while the mind boggled with the Cern scientists of  Particle Fever and the feminist punk band of Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer, there was one film whose ambition and realisation of said ambition really stood out. The Act of Killing directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, was the rightful recipient of the festival’s Special Jury Prize and is now receiving yet more acclaim following it’s cinema release late ast week.

The film follows perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s as they revisit the massacres through a series of dramatic reconstructions. Within these improvised performances the key characters end up playing the role of both killer and victim, creating a re-assessment of their actions that elicits a bizarre and revealing response.

And it’s not just the press that are wowed by this offering, Joshua’s fellow filmmakers have been quick to heap praise with Werner Herzog saying: “Like all great documentaries, The Act of Killing demands another way of looking at reality. It starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to reenact what they did, and then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into nightmare and then into bitter reality. An amazing and impressive film.”

Here Joshua Oppenheimer, explains more on the years of research, filming and editing that went into this award winning film.

WHAT WAS THE GENESIS OF THE PROJECT?

In February 2004, I filmed a former death squad leader demonstrate how, in less than three months, he and his fellow killers slaughtered 10,500 alleged ‘communists’ in a single clearing by a river in North Sumatra. When he was finished with his explanation, he asked my sound recordist to take some snapshots of us together by the riverbank. He smiled broadly, gave a thumbs up in one photo, a victory sign in the next.

Two months later, other photos, this time of American soldiers smiling and giving the thumbs up while torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, appeared in the news (Errol Morris later revealed these photographs to be more complex than they at first appear). The most unsettling thing about these images is not the violence they document, but rather what they suggest to us about how their participants wanted, in that moment, to be seen. And how they thought, in that moment, they would want to remember themselves. Moreover, performing, acting, posing appear to be part of the procedures of humiliation.

When I began developing The Act of Killing in 2005I had already been filming for three years with survivors of the 1965-66 massacres. I had lived for a year in a village of survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan. I had become very close to several of the families there. During that time, Christine Cynn and I collaborated with a fledgling plantation workers’ union to make The Globalization Tapes, and began production on a forthcoming film about a family of survivors that begins to confront (with tremendous dignity and patience) the killers who murdered their son. Our efforts to record the survivors’ experiences – never before expressed publicly – took place in the shadow of their torturers, as well as the executioners who murdered their relatives – men who, like Anwar Congo, would boast about what they did.

HOW DOES THIS SITUATION IN INDONESIA RELATE TO OTHER MASS PERSECUTIONS HAPPENING INTERNATIONALLY?

The differences between the situations I was filming in Indonesia and other situations of mass persecution may at first seem obvious. Unlike in Rwanda, South Africa or Germany, in Indonesia there have been no truth and reconciliation commissions, no trials, no memorials for victims. Instead, ever since committing their atrocities, the perpetrators and their protégés have run the country, insisting they be honoured as national heroes by a docile (and often terrified) public. But is this situation really so exceptional? At home (in the USA), the champions of torture, disappearance, and indefinite detention were in the highest positions of political power and, at the same time, busily tending to their legacy as the heroic saviours of western civilisation. That such narratives would be believed (despite all evidence to the contrary) suggests a failure of our collective imagination, while simultaneously revealing the power of storytelling in shaping how we see.

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