Critical Roundup #2:
Documentaries at NZIFF

FILM, Film Festivals
Continuing our series of “critical roundups” looking at New Zealand International Film Festival highlights our writers have previously covered abroad, we single out three essential documentaries: a second helping of Slavoj Žižek’s infectious psychoanalytic theories delivered via popular cinema and culture in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology; Alex Gibney’s latest expose, We Steal Secrets, about the inner workings of WikiLeaks; and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, in which the gutsy documentarian plays cameraman to chilling recreations of the Sumatran massacres.

Slavoj Žižek’s new film essay-cum-critical studies seminar, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, is a hugely entertaining follow up to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Again under the direction of Sophie Fiennes, Žižek finds himself lecturing from within the movie scenes he cites—many famous, some less well known—as illustrations for his wide reaching, sometimes discombobulating perspective on consumerism, capitalism, Marxism, fascism, and religion in our ordinary reality; a reality, he argues, is framed by ideology, and upon recognition, does not change our reality, but engenders our suspicion of it. This conceit is cleverly introduced using clips from John Carpenter’s They Live (“We think that ideology is something confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses. You take off the glasses so you can finally see the way things really are”), with the logical outcome of this newfound awareness—violence and revolt—epitomised in the film’s hilarious, never-ending fight scene, in which the protagonist brawls with his best friend until he too puts on the glasses and comes to his senses.

Revolution is painful, Žižek tells us, via the likes of Taxi Driver and Jaws, or suppressed, via The Dark Knight and other grand Hollywood fictions, however he is also ruthless at grounding his thinking in real contemporary trauma—the London riots, Anders Breivik, and so on. If his dissertation has an endpoint (albeit one lacking a concrete solution, a common criticism of his theories), it’s that ideology is a comforting illusion (“the depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force”), that cinema and popular entertainment is threaded into that illusion, and that the time has come to set our possibilities straight, even if it’s easier for us to imagine an asteroid destroying the planet than a modest change in our economic order. As a piece of film criticism, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is unfocused but also rich in stray observations—the section devoted to Titanic and James Cameron’s insipid “Hollywood Marxism” is particularly inspired—and is similarly accessible through Žižek’s various pithy asides, such as those on Coke, Starbucks, and Kinder Surprise. As a philosopher, Žižek was originally introduced to festival audiences via Astra Taylor’s documentaries Žižek! and Examined Life, although the latter, a kind of speed dating session with cultural critics, didn’t do the irrepressible Slovenian (nor his contemporaries) justice. Fiennes’s documentary, alternatively, is more like a one-on-one session with Žižek on speed: full bodied, restless, and endlessly talkative, even the most restrained of circumstances (i.e. Žižek flaked out on Travis Bickle’s bed) displays the exciting side effects of thinking critically about the world.—Tim Wong Read More

When I finished watching We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, I had the Two Face line from The Dark Knight stuck in my head, about how we either die a hero or live long enough to see ourselves become the villain. Alex Gibney is drawing universal plaudits as one of the best and most important documentarians around today. He doesn’t flatten story like Michael Moore. The Smartest Guys in the Room, his 2005 documentary about the Enron fiasco, was a searing, detailed, and complex moral account of the company’s demise. Gibney doesn’t buy into angles, he tells stories with dedication and patience. We Steal Secrets is as brilliant as you’d expect. It’s a movie that will divide people this year.

Namely, because Gibney puts forward a version of the story that is as hard on the New York Times as it is on Assange and his supporters. He traces the birth of WikiLeaks carefully, Assange’s hacker past, his slightly unusual air, his motivations and goals of transparency and setting the Internet up to be a huge check on power. We see how unprepared WikiLeaks was, essentially a small volunteer organisation, when they stepped into the spotlight, teaming up with major global newspapers to publish the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. We get to see Assange execute his own demise. He’s too glib in failing to protect and redact the names of informants in the documents, allowing opponents to change the story and poke holes in WikiLeaks’ own actions. He becomes paranoid and believes in his own hype, then when the sexual misconduct charges are made against him we see Assange lose the plot entirely; encouraging his supporters to conflate the charges with an alleged CIA smear campaign concocted in his own imagination, motivating his supporters to commit mass slander, siphoning off Wikileaks donations into his legal defense fund and then slapping his own staff with over-the-top confidentiality clauses complete with massive legal penalties for leaking information.

Gibney also turns the story on to Bradley Manning and explores how he was the forgotten victim of WikiLeaks, a moralist who wanted people to be informed about the disgraces of war and instead became a sideshow to the Assange circus. It’s a hypnotic, absurd human drama and Gibney turns it over expertly and from all sides. No one has put this story together in such a complete fashion.—James Robinson Read More

In Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable The Act of Killing, the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide of up to two million Communists and ethnic Chinese looms large, with no dialogue or starting afresh having yet taken place in contemporary Indonesia. In fact, Oppenheimer begins his documentary by showing how those responsible for the killing, and the systems that they put in place, are still fêted. Or worse: still in charge.

Instead taking the standard approach to documenting a horrible past, Oppenheimer inverts the focus. He locates one death squad leader, Anwar Congo, in the city of Medan. Congo was one of the founders of a prominent right-wing paramilitary group that carried out many of the killings—the orgy of violence a result of collusion between the army led by Suharto, petty criminals praised as gangsters (or “free men” as many in film gleefully state), and Cold War politics that gave anti-Communist purges free rein in Indonesia. The film opens with Oppenheimer asking Congo about what he did during that time. Congo talks about being a playboy during the era. He watched a lot of movies. He is next shown dancing on the spot where he personally murdered hundreds. He then—and this is the hook of the film—admits that he dances to forget. Others are far less reflective. One boasts about killing his ethnic Chinese girlfriend’s father in the street. The Vice President of Indonesia is filmed praising the paramilitary group. Another government minister leads the charge in recreating the burning of a village. Oppenheimer pointedly juxtaposes this past with modern Indonesia: a rollicking economy with all of the trappings of Western capitalism presented as being built on the bodies of murdered victims.

Oppenheimer’s audacious tactic to try to discover what went on in the ‘60s is to ask film-fan Congo to recreate the events for the documentary—in the style of Congo’s favourite films. Camp horror films. Film noir. War movies. Big musical numbers. Art as something terrible, not as something noble. Congo is more than happy to oblige, and gathers a few of his fellow gangsters to assist. As Congo carries on with filming (tellingly, he frequently plays the victim), he becomes more and more disquieted by what he is acting out. Oppenheimer isn’t particularly interested in providing any redemption for Congo, and admitted after the screening that he didn’t have the right to do so. His documentary instead is more of a physical and psychological purging up of the past, and an analysis of repression (political and personal). The documentary presents jaw-dropping scene after jaw-dropping scene, the cumulative effect being that of a sledgehammer. Actors recreate the burning of a village at the site where an actual village was burned in the ’60s, and the village’s children and women who were coerced to be extras continue to cry after “cut” is called. Congo and his henchmen tell the actors they can stop crying. “It’s only a film.” In another brutal scene, Oppenheimer follows the gangsters as they rough up ethnic Chinese merchants for bribes. Oppenheimer focuses on the hands of one victim as they shake while the gangsters ask for more money. This is true horror.

The Act of Killing caused a big stir in Indonesia, and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog were so impressed by it that they came aboard as executive producers. Some have criticised the film for not giving the victims a voice, but that arguably misses the point. Aside from the fact that Oppenheimer tried to include the victims, but was prevented from doing so by army and government interference (the end credits largely list the crew as ‘anonymous’ for continued fear of reprisals), the documentary is about the mechanics of terror and citizens’ willingness to either be complicit or indifferent to “someone else’s” travails. Horrifically, Oppenheimer depicts the banality of evil becoming intricately tied to the world of escapism. But the film also offers a glimmer of hope in showing how art can prevent the past from being repressed or forgotten. A vital piece of work, it’s not hyperbole to state that The Act of Killing is simply one of the most incredible documentaries ever made.—Brannavan Gnanalingam Read More

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2013 opens in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.