Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence

Hard Boiled

I do my best to be open to as much cinema as I can. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m naturally more drawn to cinema which confronts parts of the human condition, however well it pulls off the result. Every film has some part of that, since films are constructed almost always by humans for humans. However the range of depth found in cinema has often lead me to a particular fragment, one which often confronts the viewer with challenges and complexity and often painful experiences. You don’t have to look further than my post on László Nemes Son of Saul to get some sense of what gets written about on here.

But what about cinema of spectacle? What about cinema which doesn’t ask you to grapple with its themes and its content, which asks you to jump on board and just ride, its twist and turns in its plot rather than in its existential themes or morally grey characters. What about films which don’t ask to reinvent the wheel, merely to make one which rolls incredibly well? Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo) is that film. Cinema is not just art, its entertainment. Trying to hack off either one of its branches does a disservice to what cinema can do. But enough waxing lyrical about cinema, what about the film?


It’s difficult to apply words to Hard Boiled, since what makes it so special is precisely what can’t be described through words. Describing the unbelievably choreographed shoot-outs and stunt sequences, (most of which are still stunning to this day) many rewind worthy moments occur, particularly a scene where cop Tequila bursts out from the wall of a morgue in motion on a steel tray, before landing on a steel bed which rolls forward (all this while spraying bullets and gunning down triads) simply don’t do justice to the visual impact of actually watching these sequences unfold. The complete mastery of smooth graceful motion and construction of extravagant action sequences is Woo’s signature trademark throughout his films, and its dazzling at points.

So much of this film’s style is alien to Western sensibilities, and yet so much better for it. The cinematography is bold and distinctive, and events are replayed from multiple different angles so you can see the carnage from all angles. It’s jazzy score, considerably more dated 25 years on (at the time of writing) still showcases such an unconventional choice in the MTV music video generation. It’s locations are vast complex spaces filled with different traps and scenes which play out simultaneously, and the film relishes showing you every little point of interest. And when the colour of orange explosions is not filling your entire vision, there’s still so much going on onscreen that it’s difficult to think of a time when the compositions were ever dull or flat. It may be relentless gun violence and fetishism for nearly two hours (which is not for everyone, including myself), but you’d be hard-pressed to not admire Woo’s commitment to providing a film which sucker punches you into noticing it’s there.

It seems almost a mistake to focus on the story, since a cynical viewer could easily see the plot of the film as nothing more than a simple vehicle to drive us from fantastical action sequence to action sequence.  But to ignore that side of the world is also to make a mistake, since the characters of Hard Boiled and their borderline massacres are committed with the weight of the moral world on their shoulders. Both Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)  are cops, enforcers of law and order, vengeful angels of society who stop the demons from taking over.

More than that, they are humans with desires, dreams, problems large and small. For all its unrelenting shoot-outs, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to Tequila and Alan’s friendship, to Tequila and Madam’s (his girlfriend) relationship issues. Even its infamously climactic hospital sequence devotes a lot of time to the issue of getting the babies out of harm’s way. These aren’t just mindless robots with no drives beyond constant one upping each other on how spectacularly they can kill each other. They may be the equivalent of mythological heroes, pulling off feats that no earthly human could achieve (Alan after getting shot in the back with a shotgun blast, still manages to pull off his part in an elaborate yacht shoot-out), but even they must have things we can relate to.

There are already a million essays sitting out there about what a masterpiece of the action genre this is, online or in books. Scott Tobias’s excellent article manages to reinforce the differences which I view this film in, in a CGI drenched world. What makes Hard Boiled pack its shotgun punch is the fact that it’s a continuous stream of elaborate real special effects. When the film released, CGI was still in its infancy and this film 20 years later still makes the case for doing things without digital painters. It’s a celluloid spectacle which is impossible to re-create with digital technology, because even if you could create that film now in an animation suite, without ever filming a single image, you would never be able to fix it in the audience’s mind that what they were watching was real. The reason why so much of the film works, is because the stunts have to be seen to be believed, but make no mistake that the stunts really were done by real people. Bikes exploded on fire in mid-air with a real rider on top of them.

I mean you just can’t make that in a computer. These little machines are incredible, but they can’t do everything. The weightlessness of destruction found in Marvel and DC’s big budget superhero movies, where cities, even entire worlds are continually razed and then replaced or reconstructed manages to lose that feeling of meaningful action this film captures. The violence and extravagance in the film may reach delirious qualities, as bullet after bullet skims across the screen, but every figure shot and every piece of scenery which explodes actually does so directly, mainly because its being shot at. As much as there is going on, Woo’s expertise is in the fact that it’s all so easy to follow.

Hard Boiled is a film where every element reacts to the persona of a director who wants the film to be enjoyed on all levels. Taken at surface level, it’s a hell of an action film. If you want to take the interpretations deeper, exploring the content and sub-conscious of the film’s themes, you can. But it wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s bloody, violent heart on its sleeve covered with gunpowder. Call me soft, but there’s something very human about that.

-Alex

P.S. Don’t watch the English dub. Eeesh.

Hard Boiled – Violent Extravagance and Extravagant Violence