Two movies about killing

The first is “The Attack,” directed by a Lebanese-American and set mostly in Tel Aviv and Nablus.  It has reportedly been banned in at least 22 Arab countries and in the Middle East it can be seen only in Israel.  The plot line is that a prominent Arab Israeli surgeon, living in Tel Aviv, discovers that his deceased wife was in fact the perpetrator of a suicide bombing.

Here is a New York Times review, but the movie admits of multiple interpretations more than most of its Western press lets on.  Because of a few nude scenes, the director could not find a Palestinian woman to play the lead female role and so he chose a Moroccan.

The second is “The Act of Killing,” which consists of interviews with Indonesian gangsters and murderers from the 1965 pogroms.  The perpetrators are given a chance to stage, reenact, and ponder their deeds, all captured on camera.  This is the most remarkable Hobbesian “document” I have experienced and the ways in which it is compelling go so far beyond other movies that there is no relevant point of comparison and I mean that in a way which is flattering to this movie.  Perhaps imagine the petty tyrant scenes of The Sopranos or Donnie Brasco multiplied fifty or one hundred times in intensity.  Werner Herzog nailed it: “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”  It is also a compelling meditation on the human need for narrative and how we do not know what we have done until we start telling it, and even then the process of telling keeps us from the real truth.

Both movies are rich in social science and you should make every attempt to see them.


"Both movies are rich in social science and you should make every attempt to see them." A non sequitur if ever I saw one.

and != therefore.

We can't wait to see both movies, but the comments above are spot on ... first of all, social science is not really science in either a Kuhnian unified paradigm sense or a Popperian falsification sense... secondly, who cares about social science? That's why we have cinema and literature

If you don't like social science what on earth are you doing reading Marginal Revolution?

oh, sorry, so blogs are social science? no one told me ...

This comment is a non sequitur... he said "AND" not "therefore"


I have been meaning to watch 'The Act of Killing', but I profess that it makes me a bit squeamish.

Why? Don't want to believe in "the banality of evil"?

I've got a question about the documentary "The Act of Killing." From all the descriptions I've read, the elderly killers who enthusiastically restage their 1965 massacres don't sound like they have the personalities of stereotypical gangsters, Chekists, or SS men. They sound more like characters from a Mel Brooks parody of Broadway directors, choreographers, and chorus boys. For example, one participant is a drag queen, and they all sound flamboyant.

What's the story behind this? Is it just selection bias -- only theatrical types volunteer for such a theatrical project? Or is it an Indonesian thing? Southeast Asia seems to have a high percentage of transgender individuals (e.g., Barack Obama's servant as a child in Indonesia was a drag queen). Any explanations?

I don't have a good answer, but I will say that in my experience as a Southeast Asian, many of our cultures are traditionally more accepting of fluid gender roles beyond the male-female binary. What would today be called cross-dressers or transsexuals figure quite largely in traditional Malay culture, for instance, and Malay and Indonesian culture tend to share a lot of similarities. So it wouldn't surprise me if people with non-binary gender identities are more apparent in Indonesia or Southeast Asia more broadly. A cross-dressing servant is one of the characters in Anthony Burgess's Malayan Trilogy, by the way, and I want to say that Burgess is not the first time I've come across such a character, almost to the point that I wonder if "cross-dressing/transsexual servant" might be a Malay/Southeast Asian cultural trope.

Thanks for the Burgess reference. That's my impression, too: a relatively high rate of gender identity issues in, roughly, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. For example, here's a transsexual Indonesian talk show host on the (appropriately named) Trans TV network in Indonesia:

I recall an article about contemporary pirates in the Straits of Molucca. They were all gay.

Any thoughts on what the deal is in that part of the world? I mean this movie about the Indonesian Army's mass killings reminds me of Oliver Stone's much derided "JFK," in which the entire military-industrial complex conspires to assassinate President Kennedy by ... hiring some flaming French Quarter gays to pull the triggers. Except this is a documentary.

Here's a bit from Wikipedia on one Indonesian ethnicity:

"The Bugis people of Indonesia divide their society into five separate genders. Two are analogous to cisgender male and female and the remaining three are not easily comparable to Western ideas of gender: Bissu, Calabai, Calalai."

On the other hand, the President's late stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, sounds like he was involved in some of the post-Coup dirty work in Indonesia himself, but he was a regular guy.

Steve, you're parodying yourself here right?

I'm just doing what I always do: asking questions about recognizable patterns. Here we have this much written-about documentary about mass killers re-enacting their crimes, but the re-enactors act like they are putting on the Southeast Asian equivalent of "Springtime for Hitler." That's pretty weird, but maybe it's explainable because there seems to be a general pattern of high rates of gender issues in Southeast Asia. But, in turn, that raises questions like: What are the patterns and what could explain them?

Having a high gain on your 'gaydar' detector might produce some false positives.

The most relevant pattern about them is they were Hollywood junkies. That comes up a lot in everything i read about them and this movie. That's how the director was able to basically trick them into participating in some high risk scenes such as one where the main leader played the part of one of his victims and it visibly upset him. They were huge lovers or american movies. So that could be some of what you are observing.

What's the "pattern" here? I don't think your assertion "Southeast Asia seems to have a high percentage of transgender individuals" is factually true. I think that's just your bias.

What may be true, is that SEAsia (and perhaps even Arabia & Indian subcontinent) is more open about them and has historically carved especial social & cultural niches for transgender roles. Add to that, the fact that some of these niche stereotypical roles have been quite colorful (with the myth and legend that comes with them) makes them high visibility and adds an illusion of ubiquity.

This transgender cultural element also exists in South Asia:

There has been cultural contact between South Asia and Southeast Asia, although I don't know if this cultural thing originates in South Asia.


I see transgenders at prominent intersections here in Karachi, where I am right now. I was shocked that one could see this in a conservative country..Apparently, it is acceptable because legend gives them some kine of spiritual/religious power.

Iran even pays for sex reassignment surgery while hanging gays. Very conservative societies also being comparatively tolerant to transgender people doesn't seem so uncommon outside the west.

Saw The Act of Killing at a showing at which the director was present. The director emphasized that the main characters are not unique, and that he met with dozens of men who boasted of similar crimes before deciding to follow those few in the film. Trying to recall his more specific reason for stopping with them.

As for the cross-dresser, I don't remember that aspect being fully addressed (groan) in the film, but the cross-dressing was quite subsidiary to the main plot. Unless... you want to get into symbolism about men wearing many hats, or the depressing absurdity of the situations in the film, so absurd that the fat man in a dress is increasingly unremarkable, almost sickening. The same day I saw The Act of Killing I stumbled upon an exhibit on images of war ( ). The first room I walked into was half-full of pictures of executions. This was not a happy day of my life.

BTW, The Attack was interesting and upsetting, as well, yet being able to empathize with the characters somehow reduces the tragedy. The acts are less horrifying when you can understand them. In The Act of Killing, you don't want to understand, you want to scream.

When I see a film like this the one point that bugs cynical me is how sure are we that it wasn't all staged for effect. i.e. what if the director told the protagonists the effect he wanted (maybe even hinted at it) and the "ponder their deed" part (which to me is the essence of the movies punch) wasn't so much as a natural response but a scripted, nuanced, selective display of emotions.

Thanks to everybody for their informative answers to my questions.

I caught a screening in L.A. with both director Josh Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog present, and the director noted that the Pancasila paramilitary group actually had a theater department that would, like Monty Python and the Shakespeare plays of old, use male actors for all the female roles. The man in 'The Act of Killing' that's constantly dressed in drag, Herman Koto, was in that theater group and was often used in those female roles.

Oppenheimer said Herman seemed to enjoy playing the female characters, but added that the deeper question of 'why' may need to remain unanswered.

As for the rest, many of the 'gangsters' depicted in the film are not clownish or theatrical at all.

off topic, new fed blog may be of interest

Off topic? Ever hear the term 'petro dollars'?

At risk of sounding like Steve Sailer and Prior_Approval had a love child:

During his 1964 Independence Day speech, Sukarno publicly denounced the United States. An anti-American campaign ensued in which American companies were threatened, American movies were banned, American libraries and other buildings were attacked, American journalists banned, and the American flag was often torn apart. Large anti-American propaganda posters were set up around Jakarta's streets. American aid was stopped.[8] In August 1965, Sukarno announced that Indonesia was withdrawing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and in his Independence Day speech on 17 August, announced the Jakarta-Phnom Penh-Hanoi-Peking-Pyongyang Axis, and said that the people would be armed. On 27 September, Nasution announced that he opposed the "fifth force" and the "Nasakomization" of the army.

On the night of 30 September 1965, six generals were kidnapped and murdered and a group calling itself the 30 September Movement seized control of the national radio station and the center of Jakarta. Although the movement was quickly crushed by Suharto it marked the end of guided democracy and of Sukarno as an effective president. The New Order regime established by Suharto had its own ideology — Pancasila Democracy.

(I'm not a true conspiracy theorist because I don't see the CIA as running things as much as a very dangerous version of the Keystone Cops)

As in, why does it take me 30 seconds to find something about something I didn't know about until yesterday?

Again, one of my favorite slogans: if they want to make it hard for people to believe something, then why aren't they?

Why doesn't Obama, by analogy, steer the fuck away from the line between killing American citizens and not? Why ride the razor's edge if you aren't trying to ride teh razor's edge?

Ah, so, another theorist places the US/CIA as directly instrumental in the killings themselves.

Again, the problem being that it is entirely believable.

"He claims that US officials and certain Indonesian Army officers had already outlined a plan in which the PKI would be blamed for an attempted coup, allowing for the party's suppression and the installation of a military regime under Sukarno as a figurehead president. Once the 30 September Movement acted, the US gave the Indonesian military encouragement and assistance in the destruction of the PKI, including supplying lists of party members and radio equipment."

The Attack by Yasmina Khadra is a wonderful novel and well worth a read regardless of the movie. An interesting perspective on suicide bombings although I must admit that the finer points are lost on me today as I read this when published in 2006. At the time I do recall being struck by the wisdom and insight of the author.

Surprised to see no mention of the novel in the original mention above.

The movie "The Attack' is based on a novel of Yasmina Khadra. This is one of the best book of Khadra. I haven't seen the movie but I encourage people to read the book. This is an interesting point of view on the 'clash' between the West and the East.

Most of the work of Khadra is of good quality. Khadra is an ex officer of the Algerian army and I've found his novels on the Algeria troubles of the 90's particularly interesting ("A quoi revent les loups" and "Les agneaux du seigneur").

What about Africa Addio?

Agree it's a haunting Documentary, not to be watched before going to bed (referring to the uncut version here). An italian documentarey shot at the time many African coutries became independent, documenting chaos, bloodbaths and cruelty to animals. It has been touted a 'racist' documentary, and some artistic choices do indeed support that, but then again, it was done in the 1960s.

Recommend watching it definitely - the uncut version can be found from the internets.

Although "The Attack" is banned in Lebanon, the home country of the director, it will be widely watched. Like other banned films there it will be downloaded or snuck in, and passed around from eager viewer to eager viewer, like other banned films before it.

With internet access and cheap duplication (DVDs / USB sticks etc.) banning a movie has become a token gesture by rulers to placate some section. As a tool to prohibit dissemination a ban is mostly toothless.

Thet Sambath's Enemies of the People is a bit more conventional than The Act of Killing but it's still worth watching. If the latter is like a docudrama on the Holocaust with the Nazis as the actors, the former is like a World War 2 documentary narrated by Heinrich Himmler.

"[...] a prominent Arab Israeli surgeon, living in Tel Aviv, discovers that his deceased wife was in fact the perpetrator of a suicide bombing"

No part of that clause is probable. Good thing movies and social science do not deal only in probabilities.

'...and even then the process of telling keeps us from the real truth.'

Of course it does - 'telling' is never the actual act which telling describes.

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