Tag Archives: Documentary

The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut)

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Denmark/Norway/UK (2012). Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

I doubt you will ever see a documentary like this again. And you may never experience a nightmare quite like it.  Imagine a film-maker gaining the trust of the surviving members of a death squad from an earlier generation, giving them the freedom to tell their story – not as talking heads – but by re-enacting their “interrogations” and executions, with reference to their choice of  Hollywood cinematic genre: noir or camp musical, for example.  It really does put you into a nightmare: shocking, sickening and disturbing but also unfathomably surreal. Cinematically, there is genius at work and in getting to the truth it is both brave and important. But it leaves you with the troubled queasiness of balancing on a very high moral tightrope.

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In 2002, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to talk to and film survivors of the relatively unknown 1965-66 cleansing of “communists” and ethnic Chinese. An intelligent man, a good man of principle, who wanted to publicise a neglected, dark episode in history, he was frustrated in his attempts to put together the story of the victims and their families. But his research revealed an astonishing openness from the perpetrators. What became clear, almost 50 tears on, is an environment of fear for most people but casual impunity, a sort of celebrity status, for the subjects of the film. But, at the same time, the complexity, the ambition, of Oppenheimer’s project changed dramatically, from documentation to an attempt to explain the motives behind man’s inhumanity to man.

What we learn is at times unbearably gruesome. But, it is also a truism to say that “all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings”. The difficulty for Oppenheimer – and this is difficult stuff – is that he, of course, finds that he can’t really give us much more than the little we know already about cruelty’s motives – under the right (wrong) circumstances, you or I or the next-door neighbour, etc. But he is in so very deep that the piece turns into an emotionally exhausting pursuit of signs of remorse. It becomes a self-fulfilling process of humanisation.

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The credits show that the vast majority of those working on the film on location have asked to remain anonymous.  This speaks volumes about the environment in which Oppenheimer worked and his bravery.  It is a unique film that uncovers the truth in a way that is utterly compelling while, simultaneously, making the audience want to run for the exit. At the same time, Oppenheimer may have, unintentionally, overstepped a line.  It is now a couple of weeks since I saw the film. It has stayed with me, but my emotional response has been anything but simple. What I am left with is an overwhelming sadness.

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Running From Crazy

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USA 2012.  Dir: Barbara Kopple, Scr: Barbara Kopple

The film opens with the scene being clearly set: Seven of Mariel Hemingway’s relatives, including grandfather Ernest, committed suicide.  But there’s a still more disturbing moment when the final credits show that Oprah Winfrey is executive producer.  It’s easy to be suspicious: we imagine OW in a big gleaming limo on the phone to Kopple, “Make ’em cry, Babs”.  But this does the director a massive disservice.  This a brave film and she is in control.

It’s the story not just of Mariel but of the three sisters living with the Hemingway gene – the daughters of Ernest’s eldest son’s marriage, one that was unhappy and blurred by “wine time” every evening. Muffet is the eldest: she was elegant, sporty, clever, nomadic, but often institutionalized and now barely recognisable, living on the margin of society, unable to fend for herself.  Margaux, the wild child, drinker, fighter, big partier, at one time the highest paid model in the country and star of films with mixed critical and commercial success, now dead after a drug overdose in 1996.  And Mariel, a more successful movie star who – after her husband’s cancer, a broken marriage, battles with depression, faddish life-style obsessions – actively campaigns for suicide awareness and, here, talks with disarming honesty about coming to terms with being from “the other American family that had this horrible curse”.

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Kopple’s style here is passive, she’s a watcher and a collector. The narrative doesn’t build momentum, nor is there a big surprise moment that shifts the gear or direction nor onion-peeling detective work.  And it is more subtle than a polemic on mental health. The film is a collage with a chronological spine. It splices together family film footage, interviews and fly on the wall views of Mariel with film and tape interviews with Margot along with excerpts from an unfinished film of hers, retracing her grandfather’s footsteps.  These sections are the highlight as Margot’s louche, self-destructive allure commands our attention.  In a striking scene we are shown Margaux’s distress at the brutality of the bullfight.  Mariel reflects that the event is a “metaphor for Margaux’s life”.

Kopple never spoon-feeds opinions to the audience: the almost off-the-cuff revelation that the girls were sexually abused by their father is left hanging and passes – its a “what did she just say?” moment; footage of the “Out of the Darkness” festival for people touched by suicide is used only as moving context to show the bond between Mariel and her daughter, and; we are encouraged to form our own view of Mariel. Kopple indulges her self-pity at times – how she never felt important, how she provided the support to a mother who “lacked physical affection”. But shows her remorsefully reflecting on tension with Margaux, who “Idolized all the things I hated.  I thought she was stupid”. This candour  shows her strength, emphasized when Kopple takes a directorial risk, by showing a sort of reality tv argument between Mariel and her partner.  But then she neatly cuts to Mariel pulling herself up a sheer rockface by her fingertips.

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It’s a brave film about women who, though not Nobel-prize winning novelists, deserve attention for trying to build their own lives in the shadow of “Papa” Ernest and who are interesting in their own right, albeit tragically.  Its subject matter does takes us close to, not quite over, the schmaltz line once or twice but the most painfully sugary moment is when Margaux explains her change of name (from Margot): it was the wine her father was drinking when she was conceived.  She stops short of saying whether he was chateaud at the time.

Also by Barbara Kopple (Selection):

Bearing Witness (2005)

American Dream (1990) [Oscar for Best Documentary]

Harlan County, USA (1976) [Oscar for Best Documentary]

Future My Love

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UK-Sweden (2012).  Dir: Maja Borg, Scr: Maja Borg

When Jacque Fresco met Einstein, “he just wanted to talk about Boolean geometry”.  He wasn’t interested in people.  It was symptomatic to Jacque of our cultural inability to apply science for the benefit of man.  Jacque is an industrial designer, industrial engineer and “futurist” and one of the three stars of Future My Love, a film audiences cannot help but applaud.  They applaud because it makes them think: “There might be a better way”.  But, for us, it deserves applause because it is a brave, beautiful and moving film that succeeds despite there being no easy categorization for it.  It is a poem about (lost) love, a road-movie and an essay, with music that moves both the soul and the feet, narrated gently in the sweetest Swedish/Scottish accent.  At its core is an aesthete’s eye, sharp intelligence and the most disarming humility and honesty.

Maja Borg was researching content for a film critique of the economic system when the financial crisis hit.  At about the same time, her long-term personal relationship broke down.  It had a profound effect on her – she felt incomplete: “ Yours is not the kind of love you can learn to live without”; she was bitter and felt betrayed, “How could you not tell me of your pregnancy?”; she was diffident and vulnerable, “If my way of loving makes me lose the people I love…”.  The film is (literally) a labour of love, a putting together of the pieces over several years, an interwoven narrative in which the personal journey is critical to the way she sees the flaws of a system we are wedded to and the challenge of change.  We sense she was angry, but now more thoughtful.

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Maja hitches to Venus – the town: three churches, no bars – to spend time with Jacque, now 93 years old, who set up The Venus Project with Roxanne Meadows to design and develop a community of the future.  He is fascinating in his passionate, steadfast view of the need to apply science and technology to the design of a better society, based on collective ownership of the world’s resources by the world’s people.  But he believes nothing will change until the old order collapses.  Footage of Jacque, filmed in HD colour, is blended with sections of archive film and lovingly, dreamily shot Super 8, mainly black and white, sequences of Maja’s former lover, the second star of the film.  It is the depth of this layering, the abstraction and parallel narrative that makes the film so much stronger than it would be as a simple, linear piece on the economic system.

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But the main star is Maja herself.  She doesn’t have all the answers, saying, “If we can do this much damage, we can do so much good”, but she is confidently unafraid of technology and knows that we need more than just to be nice to each other.  So, while we worry – as does her mother – that she has chosen a difficult path for herself, we leave the cinema with the feeling that Maja might just change the world. We hope she does.