If You Build It (Dir. Patrick Creadon) – 3/5
If You Build It is about two high school teachers who have thought long and hard about how to incorporate an answer to that familiar question of “when are we ever going to have to use this” into their classroom. Patrick Creadon's documentary follows Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller over the course of a year teaching an innovative (and underfunded) hybrid between design and shop class called Studio H for a North Carolina High School. Students get special credit for enrolling in the off-site afternoon class, where they learn the fundamentals of design, how to create models, and how to use a variety of tools, and they eventually must put these skills to use creating a permanent structure for a farmers market in their town.
The documentary shows the benefit such a program has for the kids, as they learn the potential to actually affect the world around them, and it raises questions about the importance of application to certain types of education. The topic is timely, but the film isn't necessarily essential to the larger current conversation about education reform. Still, it's worth checking out if you have the chance.
The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) – 4/5
I saw The Act of Killing a few months ago and struggled to review it for the site—I could never quite get my thoughts in a clear enough order to come to a decisive opinion. Now that it's showing here at the festival, I took some extra time to think back on it, and the thing that most surprised me was the realization that it was the first time I'd thought about it since those few days after seeing it initially. For a documentary that's attempting something fairly unprecedented and examining a subject so essential to our times, it didn't make much of an impression. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it, as mileage will undoubtedly vary, but perhaps the most disturbing thing about the film at this point for me is that its revelations weren't especially revelatory at all.
The documentary follows a handful of Indonesian “gangsters” as they relate their experiences leading death squads to massacre over 2 million supposed communists following a military coupe in 1965. Since the same regime has been in place ever since, these men lead the lives of heroes — not only do they have no fear of retribution for revealing their crimes, but they openly and boastfully discuss them. They are known by average citizens, they appear on talk shows to discuss their killings, and the paramilitary group they are a part of has a proud history in the country. At one point they are cheered through the streets during a parade.
Oppenheimer and his mostly anonymous crew invite these men to re-stage some of their killings as scenes for a motion picture, which range from realistic reenactments to surreal and elaborate set pieces (at one point two of the men, one dressed in drag, surround themselves with dancers in front of a waterfall and sing along to John Barry's “Born Free”). The stated reason here is that most of those charged with carrying out the massacres that started in 1965 were so-called “movie-theater gangsters,” making their living scalping tickets and carrying out various other illegal activities at theaters showing Hollywood films, and as a result almost unanimously credit such films for “inspiring” their killings. More importantly, however, is that filming fictionalized scenes of their own actions provides an occasion for each man's subconscious to creep out under the guise of artistic vision.
The Act of Killing has been compared to Shoah, and it's an apt comparison, not only for the way each film documents how horrifyingly human those who commit evil are, but also for the ethical questions raised by the filmmaking process. With Shoah, Claude Lanzmann occasionally used dishonest methods when getting some of his interviewees to discuss incriminating acts, and Oppenheimer has used the false pretense of a movie that isn't really being made to illicit stories and introspection from his subjects. But more importantly, he has shown how willing his subjects are to discuss terrible acts so long as they can frame them, and distance them, through fiction. Their entire lives since the original killings have been products of grandly accepted lies — on a national scale, that they were eliminating a communist threat, and on individual levels, that they were enacting scenes of bravado and machismo from the movies that gave them their confidence. None of them, on the surface, directly presents themselves as murderers.
The product of this process in the last few scenes is where the majority of the power of the film lies. That these men who have committed almost unthinkable atrocities are human, have families, maintain relationships, laugh and can be funny—all of this is sadly not particularly profound. But by documenting the mental process of coping with one's own evil, and capturing what happens when each man is confronted with what they have done through the products of their own subconscious, Oppenheimer has accomplished something unique, and worth preserving.
Next Update (Monday, Oct. 7) – Blancanieves and Remote Area Medical (and maybe a few more)