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Gangsters’ paradise

Ryan Gilbey reviews three documentaries: <em>The Act of Killing, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer</em> and <em>Stories We Tell.</em>

Members of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot on film.
Members of the Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot on film.

The Act of Killing (15); Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer (15); Stories We Tell (12A)
dir: Joshua Oppenheimer; dirs: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner; dir: Sarah Polley

One compliment applicable to all documentaries regardless of quality is that they are never miscast. The genre has more risk of appearing disingenuous than any other kind of film, since its relationship to truth is so intimate. But no one can complain that, say, this chap hadn’t done enough research to play a homeless drug addict, or that woman was all wrong in the role of the CEO.

Life can still throw up jarring dislocations between a person’s appearance and behaviour. Take Anwar Congo, a doddery but elegant old man with a wry smile and a silver fuzz of wool-like hair. As he wanders the streets of Medan, Indonesia reminiscing about the 1960s, he could pass for a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. Here is where he used to sell cinema tickets, while over there he would whistle fondly at passing women. And look – across the street is the office where he would kill people. Ah, memories. Anwar climbs to the rooftop terrace that was the site of many hundreds of executions often performed using his preferred method of garrotting with wire. Less blood that way. Less stink. “I’m a happy man,” he confides before breaking into an impromptu cha-cha-cha, literally dancing on his victims’ graves.

For The Act of Killing, the director Joshua Oppenheimer invited Anwar and several other former gangsters and paramilitaries, all of them instrumental in carrying out the murders in Indonesia of between 500,000 and 2 million suspected communists, to restage their crimes for the camera in any film genre of their choosing. There is no chance of prosecution. Indonesian politicians boast openly of employing gangsters to carry out housekeeping (“Beating people up is sometimes needed,” says the vice president) and the presenter of the country’s equivalent of The One Show enquires blithely about different styles of execution as though comparing cupcake recipes.

The men take as much pride in their filmmaking project as they once took in torture and murder. Among other episodes, they come up with a gruesome interrogation scene in the style of a 1940s Warner Bros gangster flick, and a musical number set to “Born Free” in which a victim thanks his own killer for despatching him to heaven. Blood and irony run thick. Wearing grisly prosthetics that resemble chopped ham, Anwar and chums burst out laughing in the middle of filming. I believe the technical term is “corpsing”.

There’s no mystery over why the concept appealed to these bloodstained ghouls. They bulge with the egotism of the psychopath; no prodding is required to get them spilling the beans about spilling communist guts, or drifting into elegiac reveries about the thrill of raping your way through a burning village. Oppenheimer assesses correctly that their behaviour is beyond belief; one scene features Anwar’s former colleague Adi Zulkadry (“Adi! How’s the family?”) chuckling as he recalls stabbing dozens of ethnic Chinese in the street. (The persecution and extortion of the Chinese continues there today, as the film demonstrates.)

But the director has hit upon a form that renders these atrocities instead as unsparing X-rays of the murderers’ vast delusions. In giving them enough creative freedom, not to mention enough rope, the movie can drill more deeply into the psychology of genocide than a straitlaced equivalent could ever have done.

It’s poisonous down there, though not altogether without shame. As the film-making intensifies, Anwar admits to being haunted by the memory of a severed head, its peepers glaring accusingly. “I’m always gazed at by those eyes I didn’t close,” he laments. Adi is more phlegmatic; he can sleep at night. “It’s all about finding the right excuses,” he says.

Two other new documentaries explore less effectively the idea of how performance can reveal the truth. In Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer, the masks are literal: the gaily coloured tea-cosy balaclavas of three Russian women whose musical protest against the unity of church and state, staged in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, made them a cause célèbre. While it’s enlightening to discover just how ramshackle the preparations were (“Let’s do the boxing thing!” is what passes for choreography in rehearsals), and to meet up close the delicate, dazed rebels responsible for making the veins in Vladimir Putin’s forehead throb, there’s nothing probing or problematic about the film itself. The story, rather than the plain-Jane telling of it, keeps us watching.

It’s the other way around in Stories We Tell, in which the Canadian actor-director Sarah Polley unpicks the matter of her own paternity. There wouldn’t be enough material here for a feature, were it not for the games Polley plays with the documentary form. We see her instructing her father in his line readings of the voiceover she has written, making him start over if he fluffs a word. And the homemovie footage, that guarantee of authenticity, strays suspiciously into places no Super 8 camera would have gone. Polley is working in the tradition of Orson Welles, but her trickery can be exasperating; it also neutralises many of the emotional revelations. To get the measure of the film, though, be sure to stay for the end credits and read the fine print.

The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell open 28 June; Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer opens 5 July