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The Berlinale Blog: Memories of mass murder

Giovanni Marchini Camia considers the Berlinale's reputation as the most political of the major film festivals, highlighting two films on this year's programme that validate this distinction: Terra de Ninguém and The Act of Killing.

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“Terra de Ninguém”

Giovanni Marchini Camia considers the Berlinale’s reputation as the most political of the major film festivals, highlighting two films on this year’s programme that validate this distinction: Terra de Ninguém and The Act of Killing.

The Berlinale justly prides itself on being the most political of the major film festivals. Each year a large portion of the programme is dedicated to films that tackle political issues and a number of independent juries award prizes to entries they deem politically important, such as the Amnesty International Film Prize for works that raise human rights awareness, which last year went to the exceptional (and still all but undistributed!) Just the Wind.

The films range from the strictly documentary to the abstract and experimental, often providing fascinating reflections on issues not necessarily in the centre of the media spotlight. Two such examples this year are Salomé Lamas’ Terra de Ninguém (No Man’s Land) in Forum and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in Panorama, both documentaries offering first-hand accounts of mass murder and torture from the perpetrators themselves.  

In Terra de Ninguém the 66-year-old Paulo de Figueiredo sits on a chair in front of a black background and in a series of numbered shots tells the camera about his experiences first as a member of an elite commando during Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, then as a CIA-hired mercenary in El Salvador, and finally as a hitman for the GAL, the Spanish government’s illegal anti-ETA death squads. Although he recounts how he wore “trophies” such as fingers or ears from his victims “just for fun,” or that he “never eliminated people you could call people,” it is extremely difficult to reconcile these tales with the image in front of us of a lucid, friendly and perfectly likeable old man. This generates a deeply unsettling dialectic that compels reflection on the banality of evil while the final scene, the only one outside of the makeshift interrogation room, brings into stark perspective the invisible hierarchies of power that command it.

The same dialectic is brought to a whole new extreme in The Act of Killing. Already a critical favourite after screening at Telluride and Toronto, this documentary executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris is a paragon of the genre and likely to sweep the aforementioned political awards. The focus here is on a group of Indonesian ‘gangsters’ (as they keep proudly referring to themselves) responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of Communists, ethnic Chinese and other undesirables during the 1960s. All of them are genial and charismatic personalities and while de Figueiredo was soberly candid about his actions, which finally turned him into a social pariah, these men are not only brazenly boastful of their atrocious deeds, but are celebrated as national heroes by their government and media.

The film’s true stroke of genius is offering its protagonists to film re-enactments of their killings in any way they choose. Although they are fully aware that the film will make them look like monsters and their victims as innocents, they are delighted with the opportunity – when confronted about the Geneva Conventions one of them rebuffs that war crimes are defined by the winning, so he’ll make his own definition: “This is the Jakarta Convention!” However, the exercise of recalling and recreating every aspect of their experiences, including directing actors on how to most realistically beg for their lives or playing the victims themselves, engenders a violent and unexpected confrontation with the moral implications of their actions. In the case of Anwar Congo, the most magnetic of the killers, this confrontation gives rise to a volte-face so extreme, he succumbs to an actual paroxysm of contrition. The Act of Killing is a veritable masterpiece that speaks volumes about the nature of evil and the universality of ethics, all the while serving as testament to the power and potential of the medium of film – everyone should see it, regardless of how difficult an experience it is to stomach.