Julia Scott-Stevenson: Yesterday I joined the first of what is likely to be many queues over the next two weeks for my first day of Sydney Film Festival viewing.
The line wound up George St and conveniently landed me next to a particularly malodorous rubbish bin, but I distracted myself by craning my neck to check out Hugo Weaving further up the line, trying to see if he was still rocking the triple denim look he had sported for the festival program launch a few weeks back.
The queue members were waiting patiently for probably the fastest selling documentary of the festival: Andreas Dalsgaard's The Human Scale. The film is an informative and lovingly crafted exploration of the city and public urban spaces. Architect Jan Gehl began measuring human uses of urban space back in the 60s, and now his company seems to have a finger in every major urban planning pie around the world.
The film visits a number of these projects: Beginning in Gehl's hometown of Copenhagen, it then drops in on Dhaka, Chongqing, Melbourne, New York and Christchurch to examine their planning challenges.
A collection of Gehl architects and planners (in ever-so-slightly advertorial fashion) outline their visions for human centred urban living, often while perched in multi-storey buildings with cityscapes peeking over their shoulders. The New York example, showing the transformation of Times Square with pedestrian spaces and bike lines, perhaps laboured a little, but all the locations contained fascinating insights into city planning. The thread throughout was the message that cities should be made up of people, and that small planning decisions can have vast flow-on effects to how we interact with each other and live our lives. Christchurch in particular was a unique case study, having effectively lost its entire inner city in the earthquake of 2011. The city is now facing some fairly philosophical as well as practical questions about what a city is for – and how much of the past is it important to retain or even recreate.
Where The Human Scale was a carefully paced, traditionally formed and argument-based documentary, my second film for the day, although from the same prolific Danish producer, Signe Byrge Sørensen, was unlike anything I've seen before.
The Act of Killing is an astonishing and chilling film. In the 1960s, Indonesian death squads killed thousands with impunity in the name of obliterating communists. The film introduces a number of the killers in northern Sumatra who, we are astonished to discover, openly boast about how they conducted the killings. Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited several of them to recreate the killings, and the result is an increasingly in turn bizarre and gut-freezing film in which notions of morality take a severe pummelling.
The key character is Anwar Congo, a tall, lean, nattily dressed movie-star wannabe who cheerily acts out his method of killing using an obliging offsider and a long piece of wire. I could almost feel the whole State Theatre audience tense in their seats as Anwar takes the strain on the wire around the man's neck as the 'victim' grins nervously. Recreations become progressively more bizarre, gory and absurd. Herman, another player in the massacres, wears a carnivale-style headdress of feathers and a sequinned gown while sawing away at a fake neck while blood spurts, before removing the dummy head and licking at the blood. Some are horrifically realistic – a man who was a member of a communist family at the time plays a victim, and it seems as if he has been transported back in time as he trembles and cries in real terror.
The Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organisation that was heavily involved in the massacres, is still going strong and there are several scenes with crowds of members that demonstrate how little has changed in Indonesia. The ferocity and pride of members is shocking, seen in particular in a bizarre moment when a government minister pauses a massacre recreation to announce to camera that this wouldn't actually happen now. Mid-monologue though, he changes direction and finishes up by saying that in fact this is exactly what would happen, and that viewers should take note of the rage in the participants and be fearful.
The Act of Killing is an incredible antidote to the continuous conveyer belt of Hollywood action, where the bad guys are two-dimensional characters who come to grisly end after grisly end. In this film the bad guys are the winners, and have dealt with their pasts in different ways. Anwar is troubled by his actions, and uses the movie-set recreations to attempt to create a new understanding for himself of what he did, one that places more distance between himself and the murders. Adi, another of the executioners, is more open about admitting the completely one-sided and cruel approach the killers used, and is somehow consequently not at all troubled by his past.
One of the most unsettling aspects, and indeed perhaps the purpose, of the film is how Anwar, and some of the other men, are humanised. It's akin to the unearthing of photographs of Nazi camp guards frolicking with pets and eating blueberries – we don't want to think of those that enact these atrocities as people, with mundane moments, cares of their own and family relationships. But if we force ourselves to see this, we realise how unexceptional these events can be.
The Act of Killing screens again today at 2pm at Event Cinemas George St, and I highly recommend a Friday afternoon dash to the cinema. The film dominated dinner discussion with my viewing companions, as we chewed over its purpose and questioned and unpicked almost every scene.
Julia Scott-Stevenson Julia is a writer and researcher of all things documentary, and even dabbles in making them herself from time to time. She lived in the Pacific Islands of Fiji and Samoa for a few years, where she made a documentary about the inaugural Miss Tokelau beauty pageant and a short documentary about climate change in Samoa, which screened at the inaugural Pacific Climate Change Film Festival. While in the Pacific she was subjected to limited internet connectivity, and was staggered to discover the possibilities in online documentary on her return at the end of 2008. She has since been making up for lost time by undertaking a PhD researching cross-platform documentary, and also working on a database documentary about volunteers. Julia is also on the programming team for Antenna International Documentary Film Festival.