I have never gotten so prepared for a film festival as I have for the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival in Wellington. Man, I don’t think I was this prepared before moving overseas for four years. I’ve booked leave from work, prepared a backpack of essentials (including water, fruit leather, and a range of medicaments to treat these bastard cold symptoms), and bought a hardcover notebook to jot down thoughts on a jittering knee.
That last point is a first for me. I’ve been attempting to write about film on here for years, but only after I get home and try to piece it all back together in my mind. Today’s initial trials indicate that I am less able to let go and be immersed in a film if I’m taking notes, but I remember a lot more and have a much more coherent understanding of it as I watch it. Seems like a reasonable trade-off: if I really like the film, as I did in both cases today, I can watch it again without the distraction of pen and paper in future.
My first two outings of NZFF 2013 both followed the same titling format: THE [x] OF [y]. Not a trend I’m particularly fond of, but here were two excellent, very different films that bore some surprising similarities. In the first instance, the title was entirely metaphorical and had nothing to do with the literal content of the film; in the second, it was an unvarnished description of the uniquely presented hell on earth it depicted.
The Weight of Elephants was a perfect way to start my festival. It’s a serious film, but very beautiful and filled with room for interpretation. It’s also very much a New Zealand story, and in the Q&A afterwards, director Daniel Borgman stated his intentions to be true to small town NZ (Invercargill in this case). I think he succeeded admirably in telling a story set in a world I could easily link back to my own childhood in Tokoroa, as well as crafting another worthwhile feature in NZ’s small town canon: Whale Rider, In My Father’s Den, Out of the Blue (which also stars Matthew Sunderland) to name three. The toetoe I’d noticed in Aro Valley on my walk to the cinema showed up on screen, too, as a key symbol in a very beautiful opening sequence. “A Kiwi film,” I thought. Naturally, Tim Tams also made an appearance later on and were appropriately fussed over.
We meet 11-year-old Adrian as his lice-riddled hair is shorn off by a grandmother who really only expresses her (very genuine) love with a ‘get over it’ attitude. Adrian has no say in the matter, and this appears to be his life in a nutshell: a powerless young boy trying to figure out where he fits, virtually always dictated to unless he’s on his own. His friendships are more like ongoing negotiations as he tests others out and — more often — they test him. He’s willing to kick a rugby ball at someone he cares about if it gets him kudos with the playground bullies, but could he kill a rabbit for the same reason? We really see the world through his eyes, and as Adrian’s concept of loyalty is constantly recalibrated with each personal challenge, it all rings dauntingly true.
Borgman shows a strong hand throughout The Weight of Elephants, keeping a consistent tone of uncertainty through a mix of straightforward cinematography and glorious slow motion. His decision not to rely too much on music — indeed, much of the film carries only incidental sound — also bears fruit when the score quietly builds in the final scene, adding to its emotional payoff. He’s pleasingly comfortable with silence, rarely the hallmark of a commercially sought-after director, but skilled enough to hopefully bring his talents to mainstream success.
He would no doubt be quick to acknowledge that this film would be nothing without its child performers, who are both naturalistic and captivating. As Adrian, Demos Murphy has few memorable lines but says it all with his wide eyes and smile, and he does well to cry so much without ever seeming forced. Of his three aimless neighbours, who are his age or younger but whose worldliness makes them seem like adults, I was particularly taken with Hannah Jones as Joely. The character is only six, and Jones can’t be much older, but in her small amount of screen time she is totally captivating — a playful cherub with an unspoken darkness. If you see it (and you should), watch for the moment when she’s asked, “What’s your name?” The look on her face is perfectly enigmatic.
Just as the development and display of power is a key theme in The Weight of Elephants, it’s central to The Act of Killing, which offers regular reminders of who has it and who doesn’t. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, which is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, is as much an exploration of how power corrupts as of the long-term effects of mass murder.
Today, there are three million members in the Indonesian paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth, which is headed by one of the most repellent people I’ve ever seen in a movie: a perpetually lewd, offensively charming bastard who doesn’t replace his divots at the golf course. Pancasila is as closely tied to governmental power now as it was in 1965-66, when it played a key role in Suharto’s military coup and helped kill somewhere between 500,000 and 3,000,000 alleged Communists and Chinese Indonesians. It’s an organisation synonymous with extortionist gangsters, who (according to this film) are seen as an integral element of Indonesian society and politics. They even find repeated justification for themselves in the original meaning for the Indonesian word for gangster, preman, which was ‘free man’; this seems a particular point of pride, with the unofficial theme song ‘Born Free’ providing one of the film’s most memorably off-putting scenes.
The main preman in The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo, who is estimated to have killed around 1000 people during the purge and appears to have been trying to justify it ever since. Either that, or he was getting drunk or high: “I’ve tried to forget all this,” he says as he details his preferred method of strangulation. This is the conceit of the film: Congo, and a few of his Pancasila contemporaries, are invited to re-enact their killings in a fictional film bearing the styles of the Hollywood favourites they used to exhibit in shady halls. He dresses as Pacino, Eastwood, and Gene Kelly; in his idle moments, he looks like a thinner, more drug-fucked Nelson Mandela. “There are many ghosts here,” he says as he gestures to a nondescript terrace floor, but it becomes ever more clear that the ghosts inhabit his mind. He certainly can’t escape them when he sleeps.
I experienced a new kind of desensitisation to violence while watching The Act of Killing. Congo and the others described killing so often, and in such detail, even before any filmic re-enactments were shown, that I found myself nodding more and recoiling less. The killing seems mostly incidental to them in light of the far more important achievement of overthrowing Communism; indeed, most of the paramilitary guys, and ALL of the politicians, are obsessed with appearing powerful and successful. “For massacres, I usually wore jeans,” says Congo, focusing on how he ought to be attired for a particular shot. Herman, a big man who is both lovable and terrifying, blunders into politics as a means to gaining greater wealth and status. Congo’s compadre Adi sees a bigger picture — how Oppenheimer’s film could reflect badly on all of them — but even in full awareness of his own past atrocities, he’s happy to argue at length the negligible difference between cruelty and sadism.
“It’s not about fear. It’s about image,” says Adi. “The legacy.” He’s happy to go on trial for war crimes in The Hague if it brings him fame, and he says all this not as a naive pawn in a grander scheme but as a clear-eyed believer who has thought all of this through and justified his horrific actions as an absolute necessity.
It isn’t so easy for Congo, whose mind and body are slowly failing him. Confronted with what he has done, and invited to act out both parts, he sees how hollow his “relative morality” is. In a key scene, he invites his grandchildren to bear witness to his on-screen suffering, and in the same moment gains piercing insight into his victims’ plight. Here is a man who, upon reaching the twilight of his life, is literally given pause as he looks back over his deeds.
In The Act of Killing, expensive crystal sits behind locked glass as a grotesque monument to power and ego. In the more humble Invercargill homes of The Weight of Elephants, a wet finger run along the rim of a crystal glass sings — until it’s smashed. Here are two films that pick the crystal shards off the floor of human experience and place them before us as uncut diamonds.