Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cinemanila 2013: The Act of Killing (Anonymous, Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer); Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz)

Killing with Lav

 Cinemanila 2013 has come around again, from Dec. 18 to 22 in the SM Aura Premier Cinema, Taguig, and its range and depth and variety of titles is--for a Filipino festival--as breathtaking as ever. I mean, where else can you find one brilliant if morally problematic film, another arguably the best of the year (and yes I've seen a few of the suspects--To the Wonder, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Philips, 12 Years a Slave)?

Sight and Sound dubbed Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous collaborator's The Act of Killing its film of the year, and one can understand the admiration: it's a collection of interviews of gangsters commissioned to torture and execute hundreds, perhaps thousands of Communists in 1960s Northern Indonesia; not only have they not been brought to justice since but today are hailed as heroes (some anyway), even hold powerful positions in Indonesian government and society. The filmmakers, not content to simply hear what these men have to say about the killings, gave them free rein to stage and shoot said killings in any manner or style they choose: straight documentary, noir, and (most bizarre of all) a musical number with overtones of an expensively produced prayer meeting. Not a few re-enact their exploits with energy and enthusiasm, even unmistakeable glee.

On watching this my unthinking reaction was: why listen to these people? Thought about the question, thought some more; finally realized--why, that was the right question to ask all along. Or rather: yes we should listen, yes their input on the events of 1965 to 1966 has relevance even importance, but why limit the film to merely presenting their story unfiltered and unmediated--no historical context, no opposing viewpoint to complicate, if not counteract, theirs? It's like giving these people a hundred-and-sixty-minute platform to reach not just Indonesian but international audiences, accompanied by the weight of dozens of awards, the praise of hundreds of critics. Validation perhaps not of the rightness of the killings (though most make many onscreen declarations), but of the killers' humanity, charisma, charm.

"Ah,” but you ask; “what of Anwar? Doesn't he come to regret what he did?” Yes he does apparently (though many of the others are loudly unrepentant), and that's the most insidious service of all performed on behalf of these people. Every time Anwar expresses doubt about what he did I wondered: how sincere was he? When he becomes violently sick and the camera moved in to capture his distress, I wondered: how sincere are the filmmakers? Is Anwar genuinely experiencing remorse (in which case why doesn't he turn himself in?)? Was he, as he later claimed, deceived when making this picture? Or was his onscreen breakdown a brilliantly acted tale of self-redemption handed to him free and clear, his backstage pass into morally acceptable society (“I regret what I did, may I join you folks?”)?

One further question: is Cinemanila right to screen this in Manila theaters? I think so: The Act of Killing is perhaps not an ethically irreproachable work, but it's an important work, in that it has dragged (promoted?) a heinous crime involving thousands of lives into the international spotlight, complete with accolades and awards. It needs to be seen, digested, discussed; if the filmmakers fail to provide us with a mediating intelligence to suss out the meaning of what they have shown (and--trust me--much of it is appalling to watch) I'd say it's up to us to ask the questions and suss out the meanings ourselves. If Oppenheimer isn't able or willing to finish the job, maybe we should do it for him--transcribe the discussion and hand the record over, as a gift. He may or may not like what we have to say, but he might finally get his work of art.

Then there's Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte the End of History) which I submit is the corrective to Oppenheimer's documentary--here is Diaz's equivalent of Anwar Congo, in the guise of Fabian (Sid Lucero), a brilliant former law student turned existential murderer (this is Diaz's unabashed re-enactment of Crime and Punishment in a Philippine setting). Fabian has killed only two souls compared to Anwar and his friends' thousands (I for one am a believer in the absolute value of a single human being), but otherwise the key details are there: the eloquence, the authority, the charisma; the intelligence and self-serving arrogance.

But his isn't the only story Diaz tells; there's also Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the unintended consequence of Fabian's crime--when Fabian escapes, Joaquin is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in his stead. Victimizer, meet victim; unlike in Oppenheimer's film, the criminal does not get a free pass--Fabian follows Joaquin's family and his conscience torments him accordingly (this being a fiction film, one accepts without much trouble the storyteller's omniscient viewpoint...where in Oppenheimer's, a documentary (a film where the ostensible intention is to arrive at the truth), you're strangely far more reluctant to accept the veracity of the onscreen redemption).

Diaz doesn't operate according to the oversimplified calculus of good vs. evil, innocent vs. guilty; watching Joaquin we wonder just how much in his innocent goodness he's culpable for the situations he somehow magically (even comically) falls into; likewise while watching Fabian we wonder at what point do his anguished attempts at retribution become valid, maybe even acceptable. Diaz clearly has sympathy for Joaquin, but you can't help but notice that Fabian's sensibility--his critical view of the ordinary Filipino, his philosophy of fighting ignorance and evil without mercy--feels uncomfortably similar to Diaz's own.

Diaz doesn't mean to present an ethics lesson; you realize this sitting through the film's entire two-hundred-and-forty-minute length, and in fact I'd even insist it's necessary to sit through the film's comparatively long running time (comparatively; he's been known to make films that run for eight, nine, eleven hours) to realize the full extent of its complexities and ambiguities, a realization which gradually seeps in, as opposed to being baldly presented on a silver platter--or not present at all.

What distinguishes Diaz from Oppenheimer, and his collaborators? The latter gave the game away early in his film, when a gangster bullied a Chinese merchant into giving not just his daily blackmail amount but a considerable extra--the unspoken implication being that he's demanding more because there are cameras watching. At which point I realized Oppenheimer hadn't fully thought out the consequences of this scene--how the gangster would react to his presence, how it would affect the merchant--and that he probably doesn't know what he's doing at all. Diaz does--least I feel he does--and he presents, questions, provokes with the probity and passion of a real artist.

First published in Businessworld, 12.18.13

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