Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Act of Killing (2013): Propaganda vs Truth

The Act of Killing (2013)
(Theatrical Version)
dir: Joshua Oppenheimer, Cynthia Cynn, Anonymous

The art of weaving a believable story is key to holding control of your audience. Whether that be as small as a movie holding its audience, a video game over its players, or as large as a government over its citizens, the art of storytelling is key to controlling the minds of your subjects.

This has been in cultures as early as Egypt and the Mayans, where there was order and human sacrifices. Hitler used it to rally people behind him during his genocide of Jews, gays and dissidents. All western governments have used it constantly. And, in The Act of Killing, Indonesian leadership is using the art of storytelling to gloss over the two year genocide that resulted from military uprisings.

The initial coup that happened is a bit muddled. In The Act of Killing, the titles describe it as a militaristic overthrow of the government, in a full out series of assassinations and battles. But, Wiki describes it as a failed military coup. And, the reality might be a series of planned killings resulted in a more militaristic dictatorship, a la Hitler in Germany.

Regardless of who did what in the beginning, the next two years resulted in government sanctioned militaristic murders of all communists, Chinese-born people, and dissidents. The number killed during the period of cleansing ranged from 500,000 to 2.5m.

What the people ended up believing, though, is that the uprisers were the cruel sadistic ones who killed people in order to overthrow the government. In reality, the government used a group of people who behaved like gangsters and who named themselves after the American term, "Free Man." Oppenheimer has opted to replace all uses of this term with gangster in the subtitles.

The Act of Killing is ultimately storytelling about a story told by storytellers. The whole concept of The Act of Killing is to have the leaders of the killers direct a movie, or at least scenes, based on their participation of the murders. Which leads to scenes such as a heaven where dancers come out of the mouth of a giant fish, and later sing an ode to free men under a waterfall while a chubby guy in glamorous drag looks on. Or, fantasizing the murders as scenes from old gangster movies.

But, that's mainly the conceit that Oppenheimer and Cynn used to get the killers to talk about their favorite subject: their power. They talk about how they exploit their positions of power as leaders of extra-legal killing groups in order to steal from the citizens, and used them to make money. They also talk about how they get to write their own story as they were the victors in the cleansing, and thus they have the power of propaganda. Herman believes that he can get voted into government, become part of the housing commission, and exploit those rules in order to steal more money from the building owners.

The Act of Killing is not a movie about the murders themselves. There are few explicit facts about the whys and wherefores of the 1960s genocide. The Act of Killing is more about intimidation through storytelling. The killers believe they are above the law, and that their identity as killers strikes fear in their neighborhood citizens. Later, they believe that the end result of the film will be that the residents will discover that they were actually the sadistic and cruel killers, and they will revolt. Which, really, seems to be Oppenheimer's ultimate goal.

Did Oppenheimer manipulate anything?  Yes. Hell yes. There is editing choices, interview questions, and even subtitles where Oppenheimer has the chance to manipulate our emotions. By constantly having the killers refer to themselves as gangsters in the subtitles, Oppenheimer is spinning their fantasy into a negative aspect. This isn't to say I support or don't support the killers. This is to say that there are layers of storytelling that aren't even brought up by the documentary.

What is on the surface is deeply fascinating. Though, by the end it starts to feel like Oppenheimer is repeating himself, and the killers are repeating themselves, there is still a version that exists with 40 more minutes in it. The repetition may be due to Oppenheimer having made a 90 minute edition from the 167-minute Director's Cut version (removing 77 minutes!!), and then re-inserted 30 minutes. The editing down took 3 months, but the re-insertion took 3 weeks, and it kind of shows.

This is another form of storytelling manipulation. The 2 hour version is the version on Netflix, but the 2:47 version is only on the physical media edition of the movie. The process of choosing what to include makes the movie subject to Oppenheimer's hand.

The Act of Killing, in the theatrical edition, isn't nearly the masterful version that some people have seen. It is, however, intriguing and delving into the differences between propaganda and truth, and the implications that has around the world. This isn't a movie explicitly about killing, but about the stories about killing. It's that difference that causes The Act of Killing to transcend the traditional documentary format and into the realm of classic.

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