Day two of Sydney Film Festival and I took on two movies that are polar opposite. First up was The Act of Killing, one of the most confrontational documentaries of the year. It was showing at SXSW and I decided not to see it there as it is one of those hard going but earnest films which show you the human condition. And sometimes that is just tough to watch. So I was very happy that it was scheduled so early in the program at the Sydney Festival as I knew I would have lost my nerve if I thought about it too much. And I was right. It is a hard film to watch. All two hours and forty minutes of it.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, a Danish documentary maker, who works with two co-directors, Christine Cynn and a person who has to remain Anonymous for security reasons, the documentary focuses on the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing of Chinese communists in Indonesia in 1965 and who they are now in modern Indonesia. In 1965, the Indonesian leader, Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement. (Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously is set during this time and is a very good snippet of history seen from a white Australian perspective). During this time, gangsters in Medan (North Sumatra) were promoted from selling black market cinema tickets to a death squad. The film is centred on Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry who were members of this death squad and as such were part of the killing of 2.5 million Chinese communists (Anwar personally killed approximately 1000 people, usually by strangling with wire).
Today, Anwar is revered as one of the original members of the right-wing paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila that grew out of the death squads. The documentary shows how this powerful organisation is intertwined with government ministers, extortion and election rigging. No one hides this blatant corruption, which is actually quite refreshing as it is not hidden between layers of protocol and old boys clubs as it is in other countries.
This broader look at Indonesia comes through when both Anwar and Adi are interviewed and invited with their friends to re-enact the killings for the cameras. The scenes are produced in the style of their favourite film genres, such as gangster, western and musicals. As the documentary starts to dramatise Anwar's own nightmares the form of the documentary becomes increasing surreal and confronting for Anwar and for you as the viewer.
The film explores the human condition and how ordinary people can do horrendous things like kill nearly 1000 people and continue to live with themselves for the next 40 years. It is not a movie you take on likely and some people walked out of the cinema. It is hard, but as the credits role and you see how many people who helped make the film are listed as anonymous, you realise that many people have risked a lot to get this story made. The least you can do is watch it and think about all those unspoken atrocities that are happening or have happened in just about every country. This is not something someone else has done. The act of killing is something everyone could actually do.
The Way, Way Back
And now for something completely different. The Way, Way Back is a coming of age during the summer holidays film. For Generation X. It is a throw back to the type of American movies that people in their 30s and 40s grew up watching. Like Man in the Moon, Stand By Me, Lucas, Now and Then, Stealing Home, Almost Famous, and the ultimate summer coming of age movie - Dirty Dancing. This type of thing only happens in the movies, but you know, it is a really fun, comfortable place to spend a couple of hours. Especially when they are as well done as this movie.
The Way, Way Back is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who along with Alexander Payne, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Descendants (2012). The film is a smorgasbord of great dialogue, funny performances and nostalgia for a type of movie we don't see much any more. The retro feel permeates the film starting with the vintage station wagon that brings Duncan (Liam James), his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter to the beach for summer, and extends to the water park operated by Owen (Sam Rockwell). The music in the film adds to the feel with hits from the 1980s and 1990s sneaking up in various guises.
This is the type of film the whole family can watch, which is rare these days, especially if it is not animated. It is well made and loads of fun, and the tone is set by one of the funniest monologues in a movie I have seen in a while, delivered flawlessly by Alison Janney. It is worth the price of admission alone.