“The Act of Killing” has inspired so much passionate praise and such emotional reactions that I knew I had to see it, and I knew it was the kind of meaty movie I’d have to talk about afterward to make sense of it all. Hence, I’m launching a new feature here at ChristyLemire.com: Movies With Friends. It’s exactly what the name suggests — I go see a movie with a friend, then we have a drink somewhere and discuss it.
My first Movies-With-Friends friend is Vince Grashaw, producer and co-star of the 2011 micro-budget drama “Bellflower” (which I loved) who’s just directed his first feature, “Coldwater.” Vince likes dark, intense films, so I figured that a documentary in which Indonesian mass murderers recreate their acts of genocide on camera would be right up his alley. We saw director Joshua Oppenheimer’s deeply disturbing film Sunday afternoon in a packed audience at Cinefamily, followed by a long chat over vodka gimlets down the street at The Kibitz Room, the excellent dive bar next door to Canter’s deli.
Here’s the good stuff from our conversation, over the din of AC/DC and the Rolling Stones. FYI, there may be some spoilers:
CL: What did you know about this movie going into it? I didn’t read any reviews, but people I trust and respect on Twitter were saying it was devastating and life-altering.
VG: I had heard it was a game changer in terms of documentaries. And I knew that Tim League was putting it out — I’m starting to really like Drafthouse movies.
CL: They choose interesting, eclectic stuff. You can’t really put a finger on what is a Drafthouse film — it’s always good but it’s a wide range of stuff.
VG: Yeah, but I think he’s starting to come up with his own niche. … One of the things about this movie, in terms of when you’re making a movie that’s really violent — I can see, ’cause I’ve directed violent shit — you’re excited when things are being done well. There’s this weird kind of rush you get. And not just violent stuff, but when it’s going well. It was the first time where I felt like, that guy in reality (lead executioner Anwar Congo), he must have been feeling that way when he was doing it.
VG: Yeah. Just totally satisfied. And it was just interesting, the whole end of the film, him coming to terms with the whole thing. I mean, I was expecting that in a way.
CL: I wasn’t necessarily.
VG: Really? It’s so weird because it’s real and it’s a documentary but I love the part where he’s like, puking, or trying to throw up at the end. I was just like, what is happening?
CL: That’s his catharsis. He’s so wrenched with guilt or remorse or fear or whatever it is that is overtakes him. So does this live up to the hype?
VG: Yeah, definitely. Every time they’re shooting one of those crazy scenes of the reenactments — especially when it’s groups of people and children — sometimes I’m like, wait, is this real?
CL: And are the emotions real?
VG: Right. The kids’ emotions are obviously real. And I felt like with these grown men, there’s still a sense of like, they don’t care. There’s a kind of disregard for them. Those kids are bawling because they think their parents are being murdered, right there. I mean, they’re reenactments.
CL: The emotions are real for them.
VG: For the children, right. I don’t think they were really considerate to it. And that third guy, the one who was saying he would rape a 14-year-old girl …
CL: How much of that is real, though, and how much of that is bravado — all these guys beating their chests and bragging?
VG: It’s almost like they see their own celebrity, too. And I bet you while the documentary was shooting, that was just being refueled more and more.
CL: Reliving their glory days, as it were.
VG: Like, (Congo) bragging and showing his grandchildren that scene …
CL: I viewed that at first a little squeamishly, like, why would you show this to your grandchildren, yourself being tortured? And then I thought, this must be a teaching moment in his eyes to show them: This is what I did, this is the depth of humanity. … It’s all so meta, though. It’s a film that knows it’s a film, and it has these reenactments where, in theory, the emotions are all fake because they’re all just acting. But again, the real feelings bubble up after all these decades. The blurring of reality is really disturbing, and yet there are these moments of release when they’re done. So much is going on emotionally in this film.
VG: And I feel like there’s this whole commentary with that and violence in movies. I remember you doing a story about the shooting in the movie theater …
CL: Oh, when “The Dark Knight Rises” came out.
VG: Yeah, and how violence in film, this and that, and for me, violence in film is a form of expression. I had said I’d hate for that to be stripped from any filmmaker because that’s a form of expression. Like these guys reenacting it — it was kind of a release to them.
CL: But they look to movie anti-heroes for almost, like, a playbook of what to do. The people they look up to are Brando and Pacino. … What do you make of the interludes where the kind of heavyset guy is in drag with the dancers? Is that for some kind of comic relief because it would be just too intense otherwise? What’s that about, do you think?
VG: You know what? I was gonna ask you that. I really couldn’t tell, because that guy was involved in some of the actual reenactments and he was, like, a cross-dressing fat man.
CL: I wonder if it’s just to reinforce that everything is artifice — things that are beautiful and things that are ugly.
VG: I think still, in their eyes, it’s all exciting and they’re glorifying it because there are no consequences.