Feb. 26–March 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox
There won’t be a more striking documentary in 2013 than The Act of Killing, which stands as the unequivocal highlight of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Shot over a period of several years by Danish director Joshua Oppenheimer and a courageous group of collaborators, the film examines the military coup that claimed over a million lives and reshaped Indonesia’s cultural and political landscape in the 1960s, albeit in the most startling way possible: by prompting a group of aged members of the paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth to reflect upon and actually restage their past atrocities for his camera.
Having never been officially censured for their actions, the men, who were officially aligned with Suharto’s Thirtieth of September Movement, readily express their pride over torturing and killing untold scores of communists and anyone else deemed to be a threat by the new government. Yet their desire to “star” in recreations of torture, assassination, and mass murder is also tinged by a sense of guilt. For all their bravado, the movies-within-the-film are basically confessionals—elaborate re-enactments that stay close to the historical record while straying into the realm of stylized fantasy. The film is at times difficult to watch, but it’s also a landmark piece of work, both for the questions it raises about documentary practice—asking whether it’s possible to exploit subjects who are sociopaths—and also for forcing Western audiences to confront the reality of one of the 20th century’s least publicized genocides. (It screens on March 2 at 6:30 p.m.)
More conventionally produced but no less affecting, German director Marc Wiese’s documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Feb. 27, 6:30 p.m.) relates the amazing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean prison camp but pulled off a daring escape at the age of 23. The film’s power derives from the double-edged nature of Shin’s plight: Without hedging about the brutality of his experiences at the camps (rendered in starkly animated sequences), Wiese also helps us understand the difficulties Shin had adjusting to a life beyond its walls.
The standout fictional feature at Human Rights Watch is probably Pablo Larrain’s hilarious No (March 1, 6:30 p.m.), a comedy based on the true story of admen crafting a campaign to help overthrow Chile’s military dictatorship in the late 1980s. But there’s also something to be said for The Patience Stone (March 7, 8 p.m.), a French-Afghan co-production. Golshifteh Farahani stars as an Afghani woman holed up in a crumbling house with her two daughters and her paralyzed husband, whom she cares for tenderly. The metaphor of a Muslim woman weighed down and entrapped by her male partner is suggestive, and the film is handsomely shot and directed, with mobile camerawork that contrasts with the characters’ entrapment.