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Culture Documentary

Cinephil


Cinephil

Documentary

The Act of Killing

Self-deception has too often been a gateway to committing and living with atrocities. Rarely has a truth been as painfully documented as in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling account of an elderly mass murderer pleasantly relating and re-enacting his killings from nearly 50 years ago.  

In late 1965, Anwar Congo lived in an Indonesia that had just survived an attempted coup by factions of the military and elements of the Indonesian Communist party. Indonesia’s neighbor to the north, South Vietnam, was embroiled in a violent war with Communists within its own country and with Communist North Vietnam.

The fear and anxiety many Indonesians felt over Communist influence led to exaggerated tales of atrocities Communists had perpetrated in the coup attempt and a subsequent dehumanization of their Communist neighbors. Gangs enlisted men like Anwar, with the government’s approval, to round up and kill suspected Communists, leading to a roughly six-month slaughter of somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people.

Oppenheimer takes an innovative and extraordinarily effective approach to this material by asking Anwar to re-enact, with actors and some of his comrades, the killings they perpetrated. Anwar happily demonstrates such techniques as stringing wire around a victim’s neck, which was, as he describes, less messy than other forms of killing. Another killer involved in the re-enactments unironically wears a black T-shirt with “apathetic” emblazoned on the front.

One particularly jarring sequence plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch with poor taste (a low bar, to be sure). The victims actually thank their killers for dispatching them as they stand in front of an idyllic waterfall scene while the swelling chords of “Born Free” soar above the watery mist.

Even more incredible than these bizarre scenes is the effect all this playacting has on Anwar, draining the Novocaine from his soul and compelling him to face, for the first time in nearly 50 years, his horrific actions.

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Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Darlene Love
Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Documentary

20 Feet from Stardom

Her voice trembling, eyes watering, Merry Clayton admits, “I felt that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

From Ray Charles to Sheryl Crow to Elton John, musical stardom has afforded many pop icons a measure of earthly glory. But in this documentary, the spotlight finally hits some of the 20th century’s greatest back-up singers like Clayton—people you’ve heard, but never heard of.  

Why haven’t the African-American women featured here become lead singers? “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen explains, “that walk to the front is complicated.”

The hurdles don’t include lack of talent. Interviews with Sting, Springsteen, Bette Midler, and other stars testify to the abilities of these women. Plus, a soundtrack of pop/rock classics gives viewers firsthand evidence. Merry Clayton’s story of recording vocals for “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—in her pajamas in the dead of night no less—takes a spine-tingling turn when her voice track is isolated and played for a newly impressed Mick Jagger.

So what kept them from realizing their dreams? Producers, for one. Darlene Love explains how Beatles producer Phil Spector recorded her voice, and then—against his word—released it on another artist’s record. But most of these artists aren’t quite sure why their solo careers flopped, and the critics aren’t that insightful. Several point to a plantation mentality, but neglect the possibility of flaws in costume, material, or timing.

What’s clear, though, is that the faith of these women helped shape the sound of a generation: Nearly all grew up as ministers’ daughters in call and response church choirs.  

While this PG-13 film occasionally flounders on the sex, drug, and rock ’n’ roll cliché (including foul language), it also hints at a grander tale. “God gave me this talent, and I intend to use it,” Darlene Love says of her success. And those like Clayton who keep singing from the shadows offer hope of a higher call and response.

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Roadside Attractions


Roadside Attractions

Documentary

Stories We Tell

“Who cares about our family?” asks the sister of actress/writer/director Sarah Polley, in Polley’s first documentary, Stories We Tell, currently in limited release.

Who cares about any of our lives? Well, we all care about telling our stories—even the worst storytellers among us write status updates. Polley tries to understand this urge to find a narrative in our lives and to tell it. This particular story is about her mother Diane Polley’s adultery, Diane’s early death from cancer, and how her children and husband perceived what happened. It’s really not about Sarah Polley’s family, but a family. The ordinary nature of the Polley family’s dysfunction makes it poignant.

Polley reveals in the trailer for the PG-13 film that she may be the result of her mother’s adultery. At one point Michael Polley, Diane’s husband, describes to Sarah how her mother considered aborting her. Diane’s doctor (who in the film describes himself as pro-life) encouraged her to keep the baby. Michael tells Sarah, in one of the film’s most emotional moments, “It’s amazing how close you were to never existing.” 

What Sarah candidly shows is a family very lost after her mother’s death and the subsequent revelation about her affair. All but one of the children, and even Michael, attempt to justify her unfaithfulness as “finding love.” The son who admits he felt disappointed in his mom is the only child who stayed married after learning of the affair—the three daughters all got divorces.

As the title reveals, this is not a film about Sarah’s self-discovery but about storytelling. As the film opens we see a crew setting up for an interview with Sarah’s sister as she talks about how nervous she is. Sarah shows different family members contradicting each other on small details, or disagreeing with how the story should be told.

One character tells Sarah, “The crucial function of art is to tell truth.” Though Sarah Polley seems unsure about any deeper truth behind her family’s story, she shows that she is a very good storyteller. 

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