Saturday, 22 June 2013

What a great guy I am!

The Human Rights Film Festival should be taken in moderate doses. The curators and directors do make an effort to season the appalling with the inspirational, but inevitably the topic of human rights has to focus a lot of mental energy on their violation. It makes for rough but very educational sledding.

This year’s most surreal feature has to be The Act of Killing, which features not only the topic of the Indonesian mass slaughter of 1965-66 but its actual perpetrators for the simple (and breathtaking) reason that they are proud of it. Unlike the Serbians trying to cover up Sbrenica or the Rwandans pretending that they didn’t kill anyone, the Indonesian gangsters and paramilitaries brag about how they grabbed communists and ethnic Chinese, interrogated them in makeshift dungeons and slaughtered an estimated 1 million of them.

The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, asked the gangsters (who are also extremely proud of that title, using the English word, which they translate as ‘free man’) if they wanted to make a film about what they did, and they enthusiastically agreed. What follows is a mix of their film output--cinematic displays Fellini on LSD could not have dreamed up--along with reality-style scenes of their production process and interviews with them about the procedures used to perform their heroic deeds.

One recreated scene is the massacre of a village of communist sympathizers in which local people are used as extras. A minister from the current government is on the scene to express his glowing approval of the reenactment while a perpetrator recalls fondly the opportunities he had to rape 12-year-old girls before finishing them off.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard of such things. But perpetrators who still think nothing of what they did and repeat their willingness to repeat it on cue—that has to be unique. The film is getting a commercial release in July, and it is going to be quite interesting to watch the Indonesian government respond to this vision of their country and themselves. No wonder the film credits have a few names followed by long lists of ‘Anonymous.’

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