Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Documentary Roundup I: THE SQUARE and THE ACT OF KILLING

Film Independent announced their Spirit Award nominees today, including their nominees for Best Documentary. Two of these were also nominated for Independent Documentary Association Awards: The Square and The Act of Killing.

The Square is an excellent documentary about the recent history of the uprising in Egypt, as seen mostly through a single location, Cairo's Tahrir Square, where many of the important events occurred.

If you think you learned anything about the uprising from the American media, you probably didn't, even if you watched some of the interviews Jon Stewart did. This film carefully documents the ups and downs of an uprising that took more than a year. The director, Jehane Noujaim, was repeatedly arrested and mistreated for attempting to cover the events. The fact that the film was made at all is an amazing act of courage. The film is only 95 minutes long, I actually wish they had given the US the longer release, as sometimes it is a bit confusing, since we know so little about the situation.

If you have more than a passing interest in this important event in world history, I strongly recommend you watch the film.

The Act of Killing is one of the strangest films I have ever seen in my life.

It's almost impossible to describe this film, and in many ways it is better to know very little about it before seeing it. If you do not know much about what is going on in Egypt, you probably know almost nothing about Indonesia, where this film was shot. In the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer's subject is a man, Anwar Congo, who single-handedly killed hundreds of Indonesian Communists during a purge almost forty years ago. Today he is considered a hero by many in his own country, which is proudly run by self-described "gangsters."

There are many layers to this film. There is the influence of American film on this gangsters, who grew up watching and worshipping gangsters in American films. Seeing this, the director offers them the opportunity to reenact their killings for the camera. Yes, you read that right, the director of the documentary asked his subject, a  mass murderer, to reenact his killings for the camera. As the film-within-the-film progresses, things become increasingly surreal. They shoot one scene like a 1930s film. Another becomes a lavish musical sequence. One of his cohorts dresses as a woman for much of the shooting.

This would be comical if it were not so darkly disturbing. I do think the film has one nearly-fatal flaw, the middle third of the film bogs down by showing too much of the same subject. In fact, I almost stopped watching, as Anwar seemed almost impossible to crack as a subject. Yet, the film redeems itself in the last 20 minutes with some of the best documentary footage I have ever seen. A huge portion of the filmmakers are credited as Anonymous, including a co-director, as their lives are in danger for releasing the footage in this manner.

I highly recommend the film.

Also nominated for the Spirit Award is Gideon's Army, reviewed here. Also nominated for the IDA award is Blackfish, reviewed here. Next week, the Academy will announce the "shortlist" of fifteen films still under consideration for the Oscar (out of 151 documentaries submitted).

No comments: