Theatre West REVIEW – The Islanders


As the year draws to a close Theatre West have produced a season of new plays, of which The Islanders is the third of five. The setup – a one-act preceded by a short piece by another upcoming writer – not only allows for a showcase of the latest writing by the west’s rising talent, but also for a reflection of the topical issues that theatre’s emerging writers are exploring.

Tory MP Claire is called back to the island on which she grew up – the constituency she now represents in Parliament – where the resident islanders are reeling from the latest in a series of building collapses caused by rising sea levels. Although the many locals – all played by the two supporting actors – spoke in thick west country accents, for some reason I imagined ‘the Isle’ to be in Scotland; perhaps because Claire’s being so far away in London for much of the year was such a foregrounded theme. Bristol was referred to at one point, so we knew we weren’t ‘here’ – but, of course, the vagueness in geography allowed the story to feel simultaneously local and universal.

All the performances were solid and engaging, and the characterisation was particularly enjoyable – Rosanna Miles gave a melodramatic portrayal of a sincerity-chasing career politician, which nicely illustrated an ego-led desperation to appear to be doing the right thing. While I don’t disagree with this reading of political behaviour, I couldn’t decide whether this felt fully three dimensional. However, it did bolster the relentless inabilities of the mentally-, geographically-, and experientially-detached leader focused on placating rather than assisting her constituents.

Joel Parry provided much comic relief in his portrayal of key locals and antagonists; there wasn’t a huge variation in his accent or characterisation – occasionally it was hard to tell whether Bob or The Man Who Wants a License to Shoot Pigeons was speaking – but he performed all with gusto. Claire Sullivan’s recently-home-and-business-less Major was particularly warming, her small frame mimicking that of a frail old man and her thousand-yard stare drawing us into his grief. Similarly, her portrayal of young and eager political aide Anna, whose willingness to admit to the realities of climate change and the subsequent necessity to manipulate the Islanders, was delivered with a frighteningly charming innocence.

The script was tight, the characters well-directed and the story accessible – it is difficult to do behind-the-scenes political dramas following the success of The Thick of It, because everything compares and almost nothing can match it. Indeed, a Tucker-esque character appeared towards the end and swore a lot, and I wished so much that the character had completely diverged from the newly-stereotyped Hardball Spin Doctor. In that vein, there were many ways the story could have been more adventurous and/or perilous, but the real success was in the interaction between characters and the pacing of the story. I was unsure as to whether Claire’s final ‘redemption’ was intended to illustrate the futility of party politics or act as a sincere resolution for the arc of the character – for me, it was certainly the former, and I would’ve liked a clearer, bolder finale.

I’ve seen many plays about climate change recently, and not all of them work. The Islanders fares well as a story about the lack of political will to address the most urgent of society’s needs, and for the company’s next installment I’d simply like a more radical treatment. Ultimately, I’d love to see more from all involved and highly recommend catching it in the last couple of days of its run. It continues until Saturday 14th Nov at PRSC’s The Space on the corner of Jamaica St and Hillgrove St.

REVIEW: Off the Page – microplays by The Guardian and the Royal Court

I applied for a job as a critic, and had to write a 300-word review. This is that.Guardian microplays Off the Page image

Off the Page, The Guardian’s series of ‘microplays’, are all under ten minutes long, each focusing on a topical or political, though sometimes ill-defined, British socio-economic issue. The framing of them under the banner of theatre seems both unnecessary – they are, after all, simply short-form video – and novel; one presumes that this format-merging was as much for accessibility as for a Brechtian impulse to detach the viewer from their ‘suspension of disbelief’ to provoke a verfremdungseffekt.

My impression has been mixed. While each is well made and relevant in its way, some of these videos immediately evoke the stereotype of the “Guardian-reader’s delight”.

School Gate, for example, plonks two middle-class white Mums in front of neighbouring school signage reading Magna Carta Primary (NB: it’s the English school) and Wisdom Primary. The latter is of course the Muslim school, in which the enlightened Mum is totally cool with her white British daughter wearing the hijab as a school uniform, and staying behind for after-school prayer, even though we are to assume that their family aren’t Muslim…

Similarly, PPE’s performative ‘politicians’ repeating humanoid gestures rings true but obvious, and ends with a sweet, innocent child (read: not politician) running around to incredibly annoying music. These reductions just don’t have the nuance to speak at the volumes they believe they are.

Saying that, Britain Isn’t Eating and Death of England fare much better at brief but telling exploration of a single issue (food poverty and national identity, respectively). Not only due to performances by the ever-watchable Katherine Parkinson and Rafe Spall, but also because their monologues and characters leave much more to the imagination. The chaos and unresolved pain that follows Spall’s tirade and Parkinson’s ignorance rang far truer for me than any of the other ‘messages’ in the series.

REVIEW: The Congress

the-congress-movieThe only thing I’m sure about post-my viewing of chick flick woman’s film film-about-women-and-their-lives The Congress at my local arthouse cinema was that The Lady From Shanghai looks like a damned travesty. Not only is it one of those old, slow, black and white jobs I resented studying during my undergraduate, in which Orson Welles walks around being portly and grumpy while earning more than the majority of surgeons, but as this trailer ran and I waited for the definitely-awesome-feminist-epic The Congress to start, the eponymous and conspicuously caucasian Lady in question, Rita Hayworth, said literally nothing, AND was slapped three times.


Three! And they’re all at once, so one was a backhand. It was really gross. Old, conventional films suck. Yay for the breaking of new barriers in genre, narrative and equality!


Focusing on my sweary outburst at the Watershed following the Lady From Shanghai trailer allows me to ignore my ambivalence and disappointment regarding The Congress, about whose representation of the success of women in the film industry I am far more unsure. I was totally promised an aging-woman-is-unacceptable-so-they-clone-and-utilise-her-to-make-money-i.e.-LITERAL-OBJECTIFICATION-and-subsequent-feminist-win narrative, but was given only the first half of it.


As you can tell from my serene, offhand use of punctuation, The Congress had seemed a feminist and neoclassic industrial critique; deeply layered, achingly painful and consistently toeing the line between real and surreal, the first act was a near perfect imagining of the ever-changing yet ever-thus entertainment industries, the people who populate them, and their possible futures, through the eyes of the human, mother, and actress Robin Wright (played by actual human, mother and actress Robin Wright, who is far better respected and hopefully happier than the film’s Robin Wright, who is consistently referred to as ‘Robin Wright’, being that she is a thing rather than a person, of course.) The pain of Robin Wright’s difficult parenthood and exploitation by her agent perfectly balances the very overt satire of the film’s own industry, and sets up a story which could, at this point, potentially either excel or eat itself.


The film has incredible, rich and relevant themes. Pathways I couldn’t wait to travel to find out how Robin Wright (and her various manifestations) would reach their end point on The Journey. Unfortunately those many substantial themes (industrial oppression and exploitation, human agency, parenthood, the duplicity and fragility of relationships, woman as object, man as villain, etc.) become in-credible, and almost redundant in the second act amongst the gurning flying-fish, horizon-spanning rainbow-streaked roads, and butler-robots that constitute ‘The Animated Zone.’ There seems to be no fathomable purpose for the film’s ‘animated zone’, other than director Ari Folman’s notoriety for expert use of animation in his previous genre-mixing documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the fact that it allows for experimentation with reality and meaning, and the audience’s expectations (and their time.)


Look, I appreciate genre-bending cultural hybridity as much as the next quasi-intellectual former arts student who reviews films in their spare time (read: lonesome hipster wannabe), if only for the fact that they provide refreshment and, hopefully, challenging stories and ideas. But 45 minutes in, as an intertitle informs us that it’s ’20 Years Later’ and Robin Wright literally drives down the road from the ‘old world’ into the ‘new’ one, the sudden diversion from dystopian thriller to indecipherable blend of Mario Kart and The Justin Bieber Show is, rather than the very awesome product it ought to be, kinda distracting.


Once in the inexplicable land known as both the Animated Zone and Abrahamia (and act two), the narrative is only loosely relevant, now an ambiguous stream-of-consciousness venture relying on random phrases and (undeniably beautiful) animation to create connections and meaning. The only lynchpin holding this together is Wright, who we’ve become attached to, but who is then bumped from the position of protagonist to femme fatale, rendering a film about protagonist Robin Wright being cloned and owned into a confused literal manifestation of that with little reprieve.


So. Wright goes to Abrahamia to see Jeff, the executive who organised her cloning and who is now a police officer, in the big hotel-ship Miramount (the future manifestation of Miramount Studios and now a corporation, Miramount Nagasaki, which bottles small vials of chemicals allowing people’s likenesses in to be consumed.) Wright addresses an audience of Miramount Nagasaki workers who have come to see her speak, and shouts that she is their “prophet of doom.” An assassin initially guns for her but kills the emcee of the proceedings, then blows up the building. Dylan, the love interest, appears and becomes the agent of the story, dragging Wright around to show us the trippy scenery, and partially explaining his life to us, but not really what’s going on or why we should care. Then Wright travels about in time to little purpose, then they have sex in front of a massive fireball, and then, thankfully, Dylan gives her the means to get out of the Animated Zone. The barriers to a clear narrative purpose distract us from any of the original themes – which by then are only felt via snapshots of thematic coherence in phrases:


“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”

“Don’t give up. Don’t fall asleep…”

“I’ll sign! Just stop fucking with my head…”


And with these resonances, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the film is a piece of Lynchian genius, from which we are actually poorly prepared for by the traditional setup of act one… It made me think of Mulholland Drive – you never really know what’s going on, though you are kept fascinated by the drip of tiny, frustrating clues. One of the biggest keys came in the form of Dylan’s animated-bull-man sequence. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemical substance allows you to create yourself in whatever animated likeness you want – Dylan imagines himself as a bull; he is shown stampeding a young girl, whom he throws onto his back and then up into the stars, where she evaporates. What seems to be a referral to aggressive but ultimately benign masculinity ends with the phrase “it’s about feeling…” If The Congress is about simply feeling the feels of this strange potential virtual world of ‘the future’ in which little makes sense, and we are so detached from ‘reality’ that we can’t even work ourselves out, then it could be argued that it is going someway to a radical reflection of the current status and trajectory of the dynamics of western public and private life.


Particular phrases and archetypal characters did resonate with some very general concepts about love, pain, agency etc., but without the robust story within which to fully brew those themes, they remained as abstract as they are. I felt them, but they did not make any more sense to me than they do at work in my own life, only in my own life I tend not to wonder why Tom Cruise has just appeared or Michael Jackson is serving me dinner. Octopuses also do not talk, in the main.


Ultimately, The Congress seems to be two films; the long-ish first act containing the power play between Robin Wright and the industry was fantastic, and felt frustratingly unfinished. As soon as it became an addled exploration into the psyche of someone under the influence of an unknown drug, in an uncertain and abstract representation of a place, with unrecognisable characters, it lost me. I spent more time trying to decipher what and why than feeling and understanding them. But I still felt enough of it that I wanted it to work.


Saying all this, I did see the film on a day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I dashed out of the cinema, and straight into the loos for a right old cry – the catharsis was far greater than that of any other film I have seen lately, as I had expected. For its lack of grip on a narrative, its pinballing themes and creation of meaning was only frustrating in the shadow of how fascinating I feel it should have been considering the rich emotion and desperation that were consistently. If the message of the film is to pay more attention to ourselves, our lives, and what is ‘real’ for us – our relationships, our values, our agency – all of that meaning was there, we just need to work harder (or less hard?) to make sense of it. I just don’t think that the Yellow SubmaTitanic was the ship to float these ideas on; it would have worked better had it been a predictable Hero’s Journey, minus all the rainbows and flying and maypole dancing and poppers that turned people into White Jesus and British Ronald Reagan (even B-Ro could not redeem this for me.)


The film made me feel weaker rather than stronger in my understanding of its consciousness about consciousness, in refusing to shape its transmission of meaning and values. As Kermode has noted (most famously regarding Blue Velvet, of which a repeat watching transformed his cynical experience to one of being “vibrantly thrilled”) sometimes you need to watch a film twice or more to fully absorb and ‘get’ it. I will likely do this – but I wouldn’t pay to see it again. The Congress made me feel, but what it made me feel was a bit angry, confused, and sad.

NB: All of this bit was, as the nuclear warhead confirms, BADASS.
NB: All of this bit was, as the nuclear warhead confirms, BADASS.


Joe joe_us_posterhas been described as a ‘return to form’ for Nicolas Cage. Though most critics are praising his acting chops, it can also be understood as an acknowledgement of his ability to ‘do crazy’ terrifyingly well. Cage’s latest foray into crazy is certainly one of substance, and, luckily, every one of the leading performances here follows suit. With equally skilled direction, much of this unique and rattling picture hits the mark dead on; perhaps, then, it’s the basis of the novel that predated it that stunts this otherwise complex story of masculinity in crisis.


The film can confidently claim its success as a mainstream picture, carefully toeing a line between box-office thriller and arthouse meditation, allowing for widely appreciable receipt which I don’t doubt it will get. It is more complex than its trailer betrays; though its the spine that allows for wider exploration, at its centre it is not about Joe being a father figure to an abused boy (Gary, played by an exceptional Tye Sheridan,) and/or very occasionally shot at, which is what lured most people in. The essence of the film is an examination of whether vices and violence preclude one from being a ‘good person’. Joe’s tendency to violence is the focus of this conflict between good-or-not, and his vices facilitate both his restraint and his violence. The foregrounding of prostitution, alcoholism and smoking, however, present ambiguous messages to the audience, and a series of morality-chicken-and-morality-egg considerations.


The big question at its heart is one of good, evil and human nature; how and why, and indeed, is Joe a good man? Will Gary be?


I’m assuming it was purposeful that the eponymous character was constantly in conflict with the audience; Joe’s behaviour bounces between repulsive, parental and adolescent. Without any comic relief it was difficult to feel identification with someone so inconsistent; though, of course, it rang true. The parallel between Joe and Gary was made explicit initially, but generally left alone throughout to allow for an assumed connection between them, and a comment on neglect, abuse and the cause and effect of both in adulthood. The ties to class here were interesting; the film is centered entirely on working and under-class characters, and very much focused on the ravages of alcoholism and poverty within their lives. The characters who did not drink (at least on-screen) were happy and friendly in the main, with a great sense of camaraderie, compassion and connection as a community. These were incredibly interesting characters, who could certainly have given the film even more depth. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at a wider comment on the economic situation or history of anyone; this was not a radically-minded film, but one which, as usual, seemed to leave most of the characters’ traits, behaviours and habitats to be assumed as an innate part of their ‘bad’ character.


Ultimately, the film is about what it means to ‘be a man’, and it’s as layered, frustrating and contradictory as that sounds. Thematically, Joe is intriguing; an archetypal story of good and evil, implicitly reflecting on class and identity and surreptitiously providing insight into the human self and our beliefs about those selves. Though, once again, an essentialist ideology about ‘being a man’ pervades this work; Joe does not challenge prevailing stereotypes about masculinity, but rather resigns itself to them. It provides more insight into the chronic clichés of classical characterization than it does into humanity or our potential to challenge the failures of those clichés.


For all the complexity and nuance, stereotypes of masculinity are glaringly present. Though the connection between them is implied, it is unclear whether we are supposed to understand Joe as having an abusive upbringing similar to Gary’s. Without allusion to it, Joe’s obsession with violence and protection of the innocent (which, naturally, includes women, as long as they will have sex with him) appears to come from his oh-so-manliness; one so tied to his base desires as a human that in order not to kill someone a brothel pit-stop, facilitated by his dog killing their guard dog so he can get in for a quick blow-job, is necessary, before he can finally soothe his roaring male-ness under the weight of a tank of whiskey and a few beers.


He then proceeds to let a first-time-drunk Gary drive him around. Granted, there is a mild comedy and a deep tenderness to the boys’ road trip to find Joe’s dog (who, incidentally, is female…) and in the context of their connection as damaged children, it works. The derailment of Joe as a father figure is successfully implied, and in addition he loses his endearing nature and it almost signals his end; not only in the narrative but also as a champion-able protagonist.


This also provides insight into whether or not the film really provides a critical edge when it comes to power relations that aren’t between men. The exploration of masculine violence is constant, but reads as more of a fascination than a critical examination of how violence is used. Desperate attempts at retaining unequal power imbalance, an unstable ego, and a facilitation of greed at others’ expense are all present in the film; all complex portrayals of the roots of violence. These subtle hints at the nature of violent relationships are commendable, and remain foregrounded throughout, but the focus of the narrative, and thus its power, remains with the enacters of violence, and not those abused. There is no unease in Joe’s visits to the brothel and the general use of prostitutes, and his relationship with Connie, while illuminating both his gentleness and his rejection of intimacy, results in a pretty flat plot strand. There were numerous females present throughout, though none were developed and all were passive (except the wonderful woman whose birthday it was – we never found out if anyone made her a cake.) All of these gender dynamics could have allowed for a greater determination of what exactly is meant and felt by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and the power relations between the two. The opportunities having been lost, they left only underwritten female characters in their wake and yet another cinematic foregrounding of woman-as-commodity.


The character of Gary was a blank slate, and rightly so; lost but full and played perfectly by Sheridan, his rescue of his sister was a triumphant and satisfying end to his arc, but not hers. It was yet another conflict in message, mired in imbalances that were perhaps lost in favour of the exciting climax shootout. For a film that was so tender, well-played and -directed, the shortcomings of Joe in its themes about masculinity, class and violence were frustrating. Joe’s final showdown with his nemesis could perhaps be read as a comment on the futility of violence, and that if ‘good’ men succumb to it, they will be destroyed, but it also provided a conveniently quick and neat ending. As a comment on masculinity, Joe is not a radically transformative one, and while insightful in many ways regarding the expectations and pressures on young boys to be stereotypically (destructively) masculine, it speaks more about vice and its relationship with violence.


As a meditation on abuse and an exploration of what it means to be a good person, especially what it means to misunderstand and abuse oneself whilst attempting to heal, it is full of contradictory but fascinating messages. And ultimately, these contradictions may ring true as a reflection of the complexity involved in human desire, and the lottery of life. The last line of the film is “Joe was a good man…”. People are not as simple as good and evil, and I hope that audience will come away understanding that; I have faith that this was Joe’s aim.

6 Grim Truths Revealed in ‘The Act of Killing’

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing has been generating increasing fear and bewilderment amongst the previously ignorant of late, bringing farcical performances of horrific murders from grinning, cha-cha-ing killers to our shocked and appalled senses. Acclaimed documentarist, actor, and executive producer Werner Herzog describes the film as “powerful, surreal and terrifying” and “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” The fact that his contract requires him to repeat this to each interviewer is irrelevant; he is correct every time.

ActofKilling-Strangle Once the film finishes and the impotent rage and shaking have subsided, you may find that to stop the repetitions in your mind’s eye, you need to coax your denial back. Tell yourself ‘it could be worse’. And you’d be correct every time!

Admitting there’s a complex, systemic problem is the first step to really understanding and making futile attempts to rectify it. To truly move past the trauma of seeing The Act of Killing, we need to untangle and face all truths hidden beneath the now welcome distraction of pantomime homicide.

  1. The golden age of Hollywood improved the killers’ methods.

Stories thrive on cultural tropes, and Hollywood’s particular brand does comedy duos, underdog narratives and representations of gloriously vicious gang killings to a numbingly high standard. The classical Hollywood era is generally remembered in the collective Western consciousness as timeless, glib, interestingly-lit fantasies; glittery outfits gurning and flailing their way through songs about rain, safe in the knowledge that if ever a Wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz was almost certainly one. Their capacity to be read as a series of PSAs for a thrifty, efficient genocide went over our heads.

But this was not lost on The Act of Killing’s very own Laurel and Hardy, Anwar and Herman, who reveal that prior to the genocide they were just regular blue-collar gangsters (read: fateful underdogs), working in a black-market cinema which showed then-banned Hollywood films. They loved the good-ol days of industrialised ‘Merican cultural output as much as the next…average joe, from the latest Elvis vehicle to the many variations by which each genre depicted their protagonists committing efficacious murders.

Mob films were especially beloved by the gangsters, as they saw their lives reflected in the consequence-free narratives of their American brothers-in-arms. Anwar confesses that seeing those wily Americans performing that old ‘strangulation with wire’ act (classic!) in Hollywood gangster films gave them their preferred method for ending the lives of their many opponents. In an interview given on Indonesian public television, the show’s host trills enthusiastically at the “amazing” revelation that they were inspired by films, to create  “a system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive force”. And she’s on to something; the hilarious re-enactments of sadism-reduced torture featuring rotund cross-dressing extrovert Herman and self-congratulatory, wannabe-thespian Anwar is truly breathtaking. (Sorry.)

The real tragedy, of course, is that henceforth, when we watch a previously-beloved gangster film or the latest murder-centric thriller, we wont be able to enjoy it. The suspension of disbelief we relied on through torn flesh SFX and each scene of human-rights abuses, has been irrevocably ruined by those anti-commie bastards. And around half of us pay good money for our denial! Screw you, reality. The concept “it’s only a movie” has been rendered useless.

  1. Our government supported the genocide.

While officially Western democratic governments maintain that they were ignorant (I am tempted to end that sentence there, but that would be childish) to what was occurring in 1965, historians have claimed that they either allowed the communist purge to happen, or directly helped it along with loans, arms supplies and then turning a blind eye to what they’d already seen. At a 2009 international conference discussing the events in Singapore, Bradley R. Simpson, an assistant professor at Princeton and an expert on Indonesian history, said while he did not believe the US masterminded the coup (noting that as a distinct possibility) “there is a lot of evidence that the US was engaged in covert operations . . . to provoke a clash between the Army and the PKI . . . to wipe them out,” referring to the Indonesian Communist Party.

David Jenkins, former foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, added to this narrative noting that “the Australian, British and US embassies were aware of the mass killings, but did not raise a single protest to the systemic slaughter launched by the Army against the PKI.”

Unfortunately, knowing what we now know about military bartering, covert involvement in foreign conflicts and a general colonial attitude to the murder of brown people and/or The Baddies, it’s just not surprising to learn that we were on the wrong side of history in this particular genocide. Yawn, next…

  1. We, personally, depend on these regimes for our lifestyles.

In subsequent interviews, Oppenheimer has repeatedly made clear the connections these events have to the daily lives of the globalised capitalist societies (that’s most of us; almost certainly you. It’s definitely me.) The market forces of capitalism that underpin the retail industries rely on modernised slave labour to function, and that slave labour is enforced primarily in countries which have histories of mass poverty and violent, fatalistic oppression. Western companies and their consumers, in turn, fuel the end demand rampantly, every time a product made within these industries is advertised or purchased. Living without making these purchases is arguably possible, but so elusive and expensive that it could be branded and packaged as a luxury item itself.

Oppenheimer’s explanation of this dynamic in an interview with the LA Review of Books’ is a matter-of-fact, gentle yet stark indictment of this process, and the millions of people who must deny it to continue their lives without action to change it. He rightly reminds us that

“we are much closer to the perpetrators than we like to think. We know that even though in some way we may be victims of political systems, we’re also perpetrators. We know that every article of clothing touching our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. We know that all of them are working in places where there has been mass political violence, be it China or Indonesia. Where perpetrators have won, have built regimes of fear so oppressive that the people who make everything we buy are not only killing themselves, are poisoning themselves in the process, but also unable to get the struggle of the human cost of everything we buy incorporated in the price tag we pay. That is to say we depend on the reality you see in The Act of Killing for our everyday living, which is to say also that this is not some distant reality on the other side of the world that is interesting to see how human beings have built this kind of upside down wonderland where black is white and white is black, good is evil and evil’s good. But rather, this is the underbelly of our reality.”

Sitting on donated furniture, in second-hand clothing (Made in Taiwan), typing on my second-hand laptop (Made in China), any sense of second-hand vindication fades from my tenuous grasp.

  1. Knowledge is not power.

While documentary film can be a fantastically powerful and effective medium for communication, it often tricks slacktivists into believing that they are part of the solution to wider systemic problems just by employing their ocular functions in a particular direction and acknowledging that a horrific situation is, indeed, totally happening or has like, literally happened. Documentaries are fantastic at posing questions, but not often successful (or appropriate for) giving answers or solutions to them. We know from TAOK and from history textbooks that these events have hardly been hidden from view, but what use is awareness in the face of continued oppression from the source that created it? Oppenheimer himself has said that “a film can’t change Indonesia. A film can just create space for Indonesians to change Indonesia.”

And we have to be hopeful that that space is large enough, because I’m pretty sure (though do check Wikipedia for me) that since the film premiered in 2012, global shit has still been hitting the worldwide fan at its previous velocities. Indeed, “the function of art is to show people what they know, but have been too afraid to say.” And what then? Unfortunately, in the main, people who have the powerful knowledge of oppression (in the form of flashbacks, scars, dead loved ones etc.) do not get into power, because it’s the people in power who oppressed them. Knowledge may be powerful, but commandeered power is like a fucking video game boss with cheat mode on.

  1. The perpetrators will almost certainly remain unpunished.

Following on nicely from our last uplifting anecdote, it is clear to see the remaining regime of violence and extortion that exists as a power structure in Indonesia. This is not going to change because a film draws attention to it, and there have been reports that the film has in fact failed to interest many Indonesians; in a Jakarta Post article titled “What Next After ‘Act of Killing’?” scholar Ariel Heryanto is quoted as saying

“The film falls well short of generating the controversy in Indonesia that it deserves, particularly when compared with the impact it had on its international audience.”

It is noted that several screenings in Indonesia have been cancelled “due to lack of interest. Some viewers even walked out of the film before it ended, while others thought TAOK glorified its protagonists.”

“If Indonesian viewers do not react to The Act of Killing with the same emotions as their international counterparts, the reason is not simply fear in expressing their voice,” Ariel said. “Rather, it is because news about preman-ism [gangsterism], vigilante behavior and their boasting impunity are all too common in everyday life.”

It seems huge numbers of Indonesian people have resigned to oppression and impunity as a part of their everyday life. In the same way that we mostly give up our voices and actions to business-as-usual in our own corporate-political system.

  1. It could have been you.

One of the hugest triumphs, and the most uncomfortable byproducts, of The Act of Killing is that the film forces us to see people, and not simply what they did. We watch these grandfathers play with their small grandchildren, teaching them how to be kind, trying to maintain their tenuous sense of authority. We are shown a bind of lifelong friendship that locks them into a grave trust and support of each other, allowing them to believe they weren’t (and aren’t) wrong, bad, or immoral because of their shared crimes. They are just another few in our giant community having to deny ignorance, misgivings and cruel behaviour in order to live with themselves. They do not have the liberty of allowing their beliefs and self-righteousness to slip. We aren’t sorry for them, neither should we be.

Having spent years interviewing perpetrators of genocide, Oppenheimer has said “For me, none of them are monsters, although their crimes are monstrous. […] Meeting the perpetrators makes it obvious that there is no monster. They are still human. They are still very, very human.” At a Q&A screening at my local cinema, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a direct question. Did spending time with these men for God knows how long, constantly having to hear (and accept?) their boasts and laughter about brutal murders, become easier or harder as time passed? He replied, he and his crew quickly became numb, and remained so for a great deal of time. Then sleepless nights started, then nightmares, and the cycle of no sleeping/recurrent nightmares continued for around 8 months. Still, he admitted that he could not guarantee that given the same upbringing and the same experiences, he would not have done the things that the 80+ perpetrators that he interviewed have done, and spent the rest of his life trying to blithely justify it.

We are all as vulnerable as each other to systemic patterns of violence, dominance, denial, delusion, and disregard for each other. Our families and friendships are full of it. With a few exceptions, we have brought it into our global political systems. And we need to understand the fundamental micro-actions we all perform to prevent seemingly indecipherable macro-abuses.

“We have to somehow accept that within the boundaries of humanity, crimes of that magnitude are still possible. They are not completely exotic. They’re not foreign to human nature. That’s a hard thing to swallow.”

[NB: This started out as a comedy article for Cracked, originally written as 6 Ways to Mentally Process the Act of Killing, a piece about my inability to do so. It has changed a lot since the first draft and, understandably, I feel conflicted in writing a (somewhat) comic piece relating to a genocide. However, my hope is that whoever reads this will engage with the conflicts within it, and with the film and the history if you haven’t yet done so.]