The Romans used to call it “Bread and Circuses”. The expression refers to keeping the public happy with “shallower” forms of entertainment – to distract them from more pressing or, to use an unfashionable term, worthier concerns. Perhaps the Academy Awards judges felt that, in selecting 12 Years A Slave for Best Picture, a slightly sombre tone had been set in their choices that needed lightening up a touch elsewhere. Whatever the reason, they certainly went for the “Bread and Circuses” option in selecting 2O Feet From Stardom over Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing from the shortlist of Best Documentary Feature. And this runs greatly to their discredit.
You could almost have guessed as much just by looking at the titles. The winning film tells the story of background musicians, the unsung – get it? – heroes and heroines of the music industry. It is winningly put together, moving, uplifting and feel-good. Its central conflict lies somewhere around the slippery, vague bridge crossing between talent and stardom. Bestrewn with talking heads, it only starts to plumb the murkier depths of the human condition when one musician bemoans “Things got so bad I started clearing houses”. Hard times.
It seems almost unkind to perform the David and Goliath like comparison. But after all, comparisons are what awards are all about. The Act Of Killing is contrarily bestrewn with the garrotted heads of a 500,000 strong 1964-5 Indonesiasan massacre. We witness this political purge being cheerfully, even proudly re-enacted for the camera by its executioners who hope to carve a self-glorying work of popular appeal out of the piece. Its central conflict is probably between the killers and their own, seemingly comatose consciences. But it could as easily be as much about the viewers struggle to reconcile these colourful, quite likeable characters with their monstrous actions and lack of repentance. It is a film that shines a unique light on the human capacity for evil.
Some will point out that it is entertainment, not worthiness, at the heart of the Oscars, rightly and necessarily so. But I’d argue the compelling contrasts of violence and colour, surreal humour and horror, fear and food for thought contained within The Act Of Killing does constitute gripping entertainment – even if we might hesitate to use the word out of respect for the sombre subject matter.
The Act Of Killing is also superior in respect to its craftsmanship. It was the artist Pierre Bonnard who very astutely said, ‘The precision of naming takes away the uniqueness of seeing’. Josh Oppenheimer’s film is put together in wonderfully subtle way that engages the audience while allowing them to do just enough work for themselves: it does not over explain or over illustrate. As an aside to all other aspiring documentary filmmakers, I tend to think this principle is at the heart of many of the greatest documentaries. In that same spirit, anatomising the film further detracts somewhat from its power. Suffice it to say that watching it will inform my personal view of the world and humanity for a long time to come.
That being said, in the context both of the purpose of this website and the decision made at the Oscars, the self-reflexive role of cinema in the Act Of Killing does warrant special mention. In following Anwar Congo – executioner-in-chief – and his murderous friends attempting to justify and glorify their crimes through film, I believe we witness one of the most the most striking examples of abuse of cinema since the Nazi produced Triumph Of The Will. Even if the film they actually produce by the end does unwittingly verge on the comical – as when one purge victim politely thanks his killers “ a thousand times for everything – executing me and sending me to heaven”.
But it goes deeper. Throughout the film, the protagonists are nothing short of effusive and explicit in their homage to Holywood – something that cannot have made comfortable viewing in LA. At one stage, Anwar talks nostalgically about how he would leave the cinema having watched an American gangster movie, cross the street and engage in torture and murder of his victims, inspired to further sadism in his endeavours by the film. The “guns don’t kill people, rappers do” trope is a much-ridiculed one, but this is a timely warning about the social consciousness that should go hand in hand with the production of powerful media – in the context of all possible audiences.
Perhaps it was in this perceived criticism of Holywood, or in 20 Feet From Stardom’s feel-good vindication of the entertainment industry, that resulted in the Academy’s decision. Keep in mind the shocking recent revelations that at least two judges at the Oscars voted for a film they had not even seen: read more about that here. It must be said, of course, that in terms of “bread and circuses”, this decision is nothing more harmful than the dumbing down variety. Disturbingly, in The Act Of Killing, we meet a much more authentically Roman sense of the term – that of real human pain and misery being used merely as a source of public entertainment.