A good opening to the festival, a jaw-dropping one to the competition.
7 Jun 2013 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2013 - 4:33 PM

The Sydney Film Festival could almost think about cancelling the screenings of the remaining 11 films in the official competition, given it has already give us a likely and more than worthy winner in Joshua Oppenheimer's extraordinary hybrid documentary, The Act of Killing.

It quickly became apparent on Thursday night why the film kicking off the competition screenings has received raves wherever it has screened, its influential admirers including Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who signed on as executive producers after seeing early edits.

The Act of Killing is one of these exceedingly rare films that changes the way people see the world. Having sat through its riveting 159 minutes with lower jaw almost permanently dropped in disbelief, I can state confidently I'm unlikely to ever forget it. (Neither am I likely to ever forget the eejit who chose the film's intensely emotional climax to light up her iPhone and start scrolling through her Facebook. Where are over-zealous bouncers just when you need them?)

Oppenheimer's inspired and risky conceit is to make a film on genocide – the massacre of anywhere between 500,000 and two and a half million people in Indonesian dictator Suharto's anti-Communist pogroms of 1965 – from the point of view of some of the killers. The US director met a small but influential number of these former mass murderers while making a film about victims of the genocide and decided to make an experimental documentary about how the murderers remembered their massacres and how they saw themselves.

As part of this he gave them the chance to act out their crimes (for which none of them has ever been charged) in various cinematic styles of their own choosing, the killers playing both themselves and their victims in scenes variously naturalistic, surrealistic and camp.

Oppenheimer does this not to glorify or excuse these murderers, whose reminiscences are constantly shocking, not just for their content but also in being so casually expressed, but because he wanted to understand how acts like these could happen and how the perpetrators could live with what they had done. This he has achieved with extraordinary power.

The first confronting moment comes early, when it becomes obvious the central figure, a cheerfully avuncular character named Anwar Congo, possesses what we normally think of as a warm and infectiously cheerful personality. Liking the killer wasn't meant to be part of the program.

The astonishing thing is that the killers (former gangster members of a thug militia called Pancasila Youth that is still terrifyingly powerful today) go along with Oppenheimer, seeing their co-operation as a chance to justify themselves as national heroes who put down the Communist threat. The film successfully walks a tightrope where it respects their wishes while maintaining an implicitly critical point of view.

They say they want their youthful massacres to be memorialised as part of the nation's history. But it's quickly apparent their love of cinema (as youngsters they idolised American movie stars and made black-market money from the cinemas) feeds directly into their romantic self-image.

Yet there are chinks in the psychological armour, especially with Anwar, who confesses to still being still haunted by nightmares where he sees the eyes of his victims staring back at him. Anwar gives the film its main narrative spine as he struggles, increasingly unsuccessfully, to repress his guilt.

It can be dangerous quoting the controversial Boston screen studies academic Ray Carney, especially given the ugly feud between him and the indie filmmaker Mark Rappaport. Nonetheless watching The Act of Killing (pictured) made me think of Carney's provocative comments about Schindler's List: “Spielberg could have made a really courageous film if he had dared to make a movie sympathetic to the SS, a movie that deeply, compassionately entered into the German point of view in order to reveal how regular people with wives and children could be drawn into committing or silently consenting to such horrors.”

That essentially is what Joshua Oppenheimer has done here. The film is not “sympathetic” to these genocidal mass murderers, but it plays along with them in order to gain access into the way they think and feel, including the way they dream. In so doing, it gives insights into the nature of genocide that transcend the usual pieties and shock to the core.

The previous evening, Ivan Sen's Mystery Road, an Aboriginal police procedural cum modern Western set in a small outback town, was a canny choice for the gala opening night feature. I liked it with reservations. Apart from a terrific cast (headed by Aaron Pederson as the cop just returned from the city), the good part is that after his smell-of-an-oily-rag Toomelah, Sen has re-found the spectacular eye that marked out his earlier short films and debut feature, Beneath Clouds. This is a director who knows how to frame a shot (and he does all his own, often spectacular, cinematography).

What Sen (now, incidentally, based in China) has also re-discovered is the sense of slow-moving lyricism of his long-ish early shorts. This works a treat for the initial scenes, with their laconic Aussie dialogue and visual poetry and sense of a suffocating small town. But as the film hits the mid-way point, the pacing becomes monotonous, not helped by too many repetitive scenes of Pederson's lone cop swaggering up to the front door of yet another potential suspect or witness with his right hand poised Gary Cooper-like over his holster.

While I suspect Mystery Road will be enthusiastically reviewed, I predict it will struggle to match that approval at the box office, and for understandable reason. While Sen has addressed the need for his feature film to look boldly cinematic, his under-developed plot derives essentially from television.

Audiences primarily associate the police procedural with TV and there have been strong examples in recent years – think of the rich complexity of Scandinavian series such as The Killing. To my mind, Sen would have been better off working with a screenwriter to more satisfactorily develop the script and turn this into a high-end TV teleseries. In this form it could have retained its cinematic virtues (as our new large-screen televisions allow) while satisfying more deeply on the narrative level. Too late, I guess.

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