Monday, August 5, 2013

Movie Theater Gangsters in "The Act of Killing"

Seldom do film reviews find their way into these annals of movie theaterdom, despite the sibling nature of the two topics. The movie theater, in and of itself, offers plenty of content to explore without need for divergence. But given the general lack of new material being posted here lately, and the fact that the film to be reviewed brings to light a direct link between movie theaters and politics - in this case, political violence - an exception is well warranted.

In his The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer has directed a feature length documentary chronicling the murderous anti-Communist campaign carried out by Indonesia's "movie theater gangsters." In it, the film's protagonists, led by Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, recreate episodes from their days as hit men for Indonesia's right wing paramilitary forces. The pair were literally given an entire film crew to reenact, from their own perspectives, what it was like to hunt, interrogate, extort and murder Indonesians believed to be sympathetic to the left-leaning Sukarno government.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Oppenheimer describes how in 1965 the Indonesian army recruited
"civilian death squad members from the ranks of movie theater gangsters, preman bioskop in Indonesian. These men were gangsters. They were part of a mafia that was running all sorts of criminal rackets, protection rackets, smuggling, illegal logging, prostitution rings, and so forth, but they were using as their base of operations movie theaters. And they were selling movie theater tickets on the black market as a kind of small side source of income. And they loved the movies. And because they were hanging out in them, so they developed a whole culture around the movies, whole kind of youth gang culture around the movies."

While the film focuses more on revealing the extent and atrociousness of the crimes committed by the predecessors to Indonesia's current government - crimes, moreover, which have never been addressed by any supranational investigative body - than on a connection between politics and movie theaters or film, it nonetheless makes clear allusions to the latter. In an early scene, Anwar and Herman recall their outrage at the Sukarno government - the "Communists" - for banning their beloved Hollywood films from theaters. The ban, it's assumed, was enacted to curb right wing American influence in Indonesian society. In the same Amy Goodman interview, however, Oppenheimer further explains that the real reason behind the ban was that the then head of the American Motion Picture Association of Indonesia, a man named Bill Palmer, was widely believed to be on the payroll of the CIA. Besides being responsible for importing Hollywood films, with their pro-American propaganda, Palmer was also alleged to be complicit in designing a coup against Sukarno.

The notion of American soft-power being spread through the seemingly benign medium of film in Cold War Southeast Asia - if not the broader world - is wholly legitimate, if not often overlooked. Nearby Thailand, a country with numerous sociopolitical parallels, was home to an American with a role similar to that of Indonesia's Bill Palmer in the person of Willis Bird. Among Bird's numerous enterprises, which included arms sales to right wing dictators, was the distribution of American films to Thai cinemas.

From the 1950's to the mid 1970's, Thai theaters screened a disproportionate percentage of Hollywood films. Due to their high production value compared to the local fair, tickets sales were usually robust, ensuring that Thai society was exposed to American pop-culture en mass. As one might expect, many of the films shown also contained narratives which were favorable to America and its free-market ideology; boot-strap capitalism, rugged individualism, the triumph of the free world and perhaps above all, a disdain for the red menace.

With the aid of people like Willis Bird, who had built relationships with all the important Thai power brokers, American movie studios went so far as to finance the construction of their own movie theaters. Anti-communist themes were thus reinforced by Hollywood icons on silver screens throughout the country.

As for Indonesia, with its movie theater gangsters turned right-wing executioners, although at the extreme end of the movie theater narrative, it was not without regional precedent.

Joshua Oppenheimer has done a stand-up job of adapting this grim period in Indonesian history into a one-of-a-kind documentary. Edited down from over a thousand hours of footage into 115 minutes of ceaselessly engaging cinema, The Act of Killing is an at times entrancingly absurd  trip down memory lane with Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and more of most sadistic henchmen you're likely to witness anywhere. That said, this movie is not for everybody, not least of all the faint of heart. Some might even interpret the entire thing as a vulgar glorification of crimes against humanity. But then again there are those who were furious over Mel Brooks' mocking portrayal of Hitler in The Producers.

Why not decide for yourself?