I first went to Indonesia in 2001 to help oil palm plantation workers make a film documenting and dramatizing their struggle to organize a union, in the aftermath of the US-supported Suharto dictatorship – under which unions were illegal. In the remote plantation villages of North Sumatra, one could hardly perceive that military rule had officially ended three years earlier.
The conditions I encountered were deplorable. Women working on the plantation were forced to spray herbicide without protective clothing. The mist would enter their lungs and bloodstream, destroying liver tissues. The women would fall ill, and many would die in their forties. When they protested their conditions, the Belgian-owned company would hire paramilitary thugs to threaten them, and sometimes physically attack them.
Fear was the biggest obstacle they faced in organizing a union. The Belgian company could get away with poisoning its employees because its workers were afraid. I quickly learned the source of the fear: the plantation workers had a large active union until 1965, when their parents and grandparents were accused of being “communist sympathizers” (simply for being in the union), and put into concentration camps, exploited as slave labour, and ultimately murdered by the army and civilian death squads.
In 2001, the killers not only enjoyed impunity; they and their protégés still dominated all levels of government, from the plantation village to the parliament. Survivors lived in fear that the massacre could happen again. – (excerpt from The Look Of Silence-Story of the Production)
Pay attention to the past.
Two incredible, stand-out documentaries. They have a particular significance to current events, specifically regarding Brazil. The tragedy of Indonesia is an extremely neglected phenomenon. Joshua Oppenheimer has achieved that all-too-seldom performed action of bringing massive disclosure & detailed-documentation to an off-radar subject. Everything about this documentary, as well as the events that it discloses, is extraordinary – the editing, style, camera work/frame construct & ‘themes’ for information extraction. Without ostentation or divergence from the topic, it manages to become not just an astonishingly revealing & competent documentary, but also a surreal piece of film-art combining both dream & nightmare, to profound result. In this sense, I think Oppenheimer shares a quality with the brilliant Hubert Sauper, who’s sublime & disturbing depictions of exploitation in Africa in the acclaimed Darwin’s Nightmare & it’s equally incredible sequel We Come As Friends also demonstrated to such a high standard. Thankfully, & very much rightfully, – both documentaries received remarkable success & ovation, pretty much unanimously. There is nothing surprising in this per-se, but considering the lack of recognition for things of radical quality by official channels, it’s a triumph & relief.
The platform for both documentaries is the 1965 military coup in Indonesia. Following the coup, between 1965 & 1966, over 1 million alleged ‘communists’ were massacred in the space of a year (mostly ethnic Chinese). This served major political purposes, market advantages, personal gripes, populist fuel & the seizure/establishment of business interests & exploitation rights/environment that run to this day. It was also very convenient for external multi-national interests, wanting to embed business operations in the new banana republic with cart-blanche corporate free-reign, all in one of the laxest regulative environments on earth. The massacre was executed by the military & police, but also by recruiting gangsters, criminals & local militia, who probably consisted of anybody willing/wanting to kill with government authority. The propaganda was absolutely fantastical & withering from all possible sources. It became a mania, stoked by unhinged fanaticsm in the first degree.
The Act Of Killing, the first film of the duo (& although by a narrow margin, I think the most important of the two), concentrates mostly on a small group of the gangsters that carried out countless killings & torture during the turmoil’s bloodiest episode. I could analyze it forever, but this is really something you need to see for yourself first-hand….it is absolutely extraordinary, on level’ after level’ after level. Certainly in the ‘mainstream’ context, I don’t know of anything that examines ‘guilt’ & motivational mechanisms behind brutal mass murder in such clarity & ‘intimacy’.
Beyond this very important history, & the human capacity for cruelty when provoked & mislead about fabricated threats from a group associated with a demonized ideology, The Act Of killing is a seminal study of political folly & flawed human conditions. Delusion, denialism, false projection, corruption, propaganda, fear-mongering, demonization & enormous malefic-misinformation for specific political purposes. The contradictions & sanctimony from the various perpetrators & agitators are utterly stupendous. The footage selected & the ease & scope of which Joshua was granted access also means that these crushing & fatal mega paradoxes & hypocrisy are also graphically denoted by behavior outside of the events in focus. Capturing the lie in full in one short instance is the scene where high ranking Pancasila militia members are dining together at a party event. Joshua records them in full “grab them by the pussy” mode, dribbling the lowest-level squalor like a cluster of gyrating germs, about a reputed fellatio gang-bang. Next, they are all praying together. The sheer, impermissible folly of it all…the combination of ultimate dregs – political legitimacy – crude, reprobate men of crass, shit-end violence – religious piety; leaves the mind reeling in stunned disbelief. Then again, this is the precise turbo-ludicrous, paralogical & foundless free-falling excrement that propels shit-eating degenerate fraudsters like Trump & Bolsonaro. A trillion billion light-years away from the “principles” & good intentions they proclaim (both declare Christianity) – empty, void, bereft of any value, verity or credibility in reality & actually; exemplar opposites of such shockingly-false pronouncements. But then these are of course conmen, & every conman needs a ‘claim’ to convince idiots & secure/maintain positions of power to exploit & self-serve. The starkness of it here is overwhelming.
Mentioning the criminally insane extinction-advocate Bolsonaro is also worth repeating. One of the most excrescent characters to waddle out of the rectum in the documentary is the grotesque Yapto Soerjosoemarno .. some kind of senior captain of the Pancasila Youth militia. Apart from being one of the most-odious-of-shit-bags ever, he represents the worst of the politicized military politics. The hard-line, aggressive, bigoted, generalizing, over-simplifying & obstinate out-of-sync, one-dimensional idiot with massively limited vision & understanding, playing the military strong-man-card despite blatantly conspicuous impotence for active-duty-soldiering (these men are physically pathetic). It’s a certain kind of shit-brain..of rear echelon motherfucker that plays the pomp & politics angle of the military field for his own sordid self-interests.
Returning to the parallels with our current crisis in excreta-politics, The Act Of Killing shows us the effective mass stupidity through celebrity & entertainment culture. It also reveals how influential Hollywood violence can be on communities & individuals, with many of the killers citing with great relish their inspiration from American “heroes” of the big screen.
It’s difficult to stress how important these documentaries are for the moment. So much of the torrential sewage & appalling misrule & malpractice we are experiencing is depicted here in sharp focus.
Exceptional cinema that requires your attention.
Joshua Oppenheimer, Dogwoof, 2012 & 2014