Category: politics

THE ACT OF KILLING co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous third person (Indonesia, 2012)

"War crimes are defined by the winners" - Adi Zulkadry (Indonesian death squad leader)

akillingA conventional documentary about the Indonesian death squads of 1965-6 would probably have used archive news footage to show the genocide and gone on to explain its impact on the families of survivors. I doubt that such an approach would have had the same impact and shock value as The Act of Killing.

For Joshua Oppenheimer and crew (many working anonymously) adopted an altogether riskier, and more controversial approach whereby the perspective is switched from the victims to perpetrators.

It affords the murderers the luxury of reenacting in cinematic terms the murderous roles they played. These self-proclaimed ‘gangsters’ and warped freedom fighters were inspired by American movies so were more than happy to turn their real life horror show into a film.

Not surprisingly, giving a voice to such monsters has been attacked in some quarters. The Christian Science Monitor and critic Nick Fraser condemn the way these cold-blooded killers can glory in their bloody actions as though they were something to be proud of.

Killers acting as victims -  Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

Killers acting as victims – Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

However ,the majority of critics rightly recognise the film’s achievement. The documentary may have missed out on Oscars glory but it won the BAFTA and The Guardian named it as the best film of 2013 in all categories.

Mark Kermode, writing in The Observer, described the bizarre blend of musical, western and crime genres as being “insanely surreal and distressingly domestic”.

I confess that the purpose of the dancing-girls gyrating in front of large scale model of a fish was lost on me but the other sequences are terrifyingly unambiguous. The dismembering of a teddy bear to symbolise the slaughter of a baby in front of its mother illustrates how the killers’ barbarity knew no bounds. Continue reading

12 YEARS A SLAVE directed by Steve McQueen  (UK/USA, 2013)

The Academy members undoubtedly did the right thing by naming 12 Years A Slave the best picture and, if there was any justice, Steve McQueen would have been awarded an Oscar for best director in place of Alfonso Cuarón. Gravity is a remarkable technical achievement but directing technology is less deserving of a statuette than man management.

McQueen not only gets the best out his actors but he also knows how to pace a movie. The huge temptation in telling Solomon Northup’s story is to revert to Hollywood clichés and crank up the sentimentalism. It is to his credit that he doesn’t milk the emotional content and heroic lines like “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” are few and far between.

In one remarkable scene, Northup is strung up and has to desperately cling on while waiting for ‘the master’ to cut him down. In conventional films there would be dramatic music and close-ups of the man’s life and death struggle. Instead, the camera pulls back so show life going on around him and makes us realise how commonplace such torture was.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor) quickly learns that maintaining a low profile and keeping schtum about his education are the only ways to guarantee survival. Patience and will power are the main reasons why he lived to tell his remarkable story.

It is only right, therefore, that the movie never has the quality of an action movie. The power of the drama comes from the systematic abuse and degradation he and his fellow slaves have to endure. Continue reading

THE LEATHER BOYS directed by Sidney J. Furie  (UK, 1964)

1964 The leather boys

The sixties might have swung for many but cinema’s representation of sexuality in this era was often anything but liberated.

The notion that sexual intercourse necessitates the removal of clothing is just one of the taboos filmmakers were reluctant to challenge.

An honest visual display of carnal lust and desire is controversial enough in straight relationships and is still more taboo when it comes to  homosexuality.

Even in our supposedly more enlightened 21st century, coming to terms with being gay can be unnecessarily traumatic. Ellen Page’s emotionally charged coming out speech is proof that this is still too often the “love that dare not speak its name”.

Mainstream cinema perpetuates negative attitudes by rarely treating same-sex relationships in an open or mature fashion.

The Leather Boys is regarded as an early example of ‘Queer Cinema’ and is unusual in that it tentatively tries to ‘normalise’ homosexuality instead of showing it as a threat to the moral wellbeing of society. Continue reading

PUSSY RIOT , A PUNK PRAYER   directed by Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin (Russia, 2012)

PussyRiotAPunkPrayer-PosterThis HBO documentary follows the highly publicised show trial of Nadia, Masha and Katia, the three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot who were arrested for their part in the very public disruption of the holy mass at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2002 and who were subsequently sentenced to three years in a penal colony.

The film opens with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it” which immediately reassures us that it will be justifiably weighted in favour of the women’s cause. Interviews with their parents help us to understand their background to the protest while humanizing their stories.

orthodoxyordeathIn the interest of balance, however, the filmmakers also give ample space to the case for the prosecution. There are interviews with angry members of the church wearing T-shirts proclaiming ‘ORTHODOXY OR DEATH’  who look like greying doom metal fans.

One web site once took Pussy Riot to mean “an uprising of the uterus” but an offended worshipper states on film that “deranged vaginas” would be a more apt translation.  Continue reading

SIGNIFYING RAPPERS by David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello

(Back Bay Books, 2013 – originally published 1990).

“Can blue men sing the whites, or are they hypocrites?” was the surreal and satirical question posed by the Bonzo Dog Band in 1968. In Signifying Rappers, David Foster Wallace (DFW) and Mark Costello are more in earnest when they ask themselves “What business do two white yuppies have trying to do a sampler on rap?”

In both instances, the question could be reframed as ‘What do privileged white people know about the music of disenfranchised blacks?’

Section one of the DFW & Costello’s book is called ‘Entitlement’ and, in it, they seek to convince the readers that they are qualified to analyse rap music despite being of the ‘wrong’ class and color. We learn of their frustration with Punk and other supposedly anti-establishment music which has been appropriated by the mainstream as the acceptable (i.e. unthreatening) face of rebellion. Continue reading


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