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Genocide

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Original author: 
Russ Fischer

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I know no one who has emerged unscathed from The Act of Killing. The film might be one of the strangest ever made, as it forces men to confront their actions by recreating them in movie form. But these aren’t just any men — they’re guys like Anwar Congo who, as death squad leaders during the “Thirtieth of September Movement,” staged a coup d’etat in Indonesia in 1965, and then committed genocide through an anti-Communist purge.

Estimates of the death toll vary widely, from 80,000 to one million. By any standard, these are heinous crimes. ”War crimes are declared by the winners,” Anwar Congo says, before happily proclaiming “I’m the winner!”

Today Anwar and other death squad leaders have not been tried as criminals; rather, they hold positions of some social standing. The Act of Killing features their full cooperation. It invites the death squad leaders to recreate their actions as genre movies — westerns, musicals, and so on — and in so doing bring their past back to life. The trailer below shows you some of the effect, and even in this abbreviated form it is deeply chilling.

The Act of Killing hits limited theaters on July 19. Apple has the trailer.

In this chilling and inventive documentary, executive produced by Errol Morris (The Fog Of War) and Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), the filmmakers examine a country where death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes, challenging them to reenact their real-life mass killings in the style of the American movies they love. The hallucinatory result is a cinematic fever dream, an unsettling journey deep into the imaginations of mass murderers and the shockingly banal regime of corruption and impunity they inhabit. Shaking audiences at the 2012 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, The Act of Killing is an unprecedented film and, according to the Los Angeles Times, “could well change how you view the documentary form.”

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The photographs in the gallery above are from the book Bosnia 1992 – 1995, available July 2012. The book will be self-published by the photographers who covered the Bosnian conflict—which began 20 years ago today—and printed in Bosnia. The captions below these photographs are the personal reflections of the photographers on their experiences in the region.

If the last lines of the 20th century were written in Moscow in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the prelude to the 21st century was written months later—and 20 years ago this month—in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, as the disorderly break-up of Yugoslavia turned into genocide. In that bloody April, America’s moment of triumph over totalitarianism was transformed into a tribalist nightmare as Bosnian Serbs, determined to seize large parts of Bosnia as part of a plan to create a Greater Serbia, targeted Muslims for extermination. What some at the time hoped was just a communist death-rattle at the periphery of the Soviet empire, now looks like the birth cries of our current geopolitical reality.

In Bosnia the U.S. learned it would preside over a world where borders and ideology mattered less and transnational allegiances of ethnicity and sectarianism mattered more. Interviewed by TIME in August 1995, weeks after his troops had slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys near the town of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, now on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, declared he was acting out of fear of a new Islamic push through the Balkans to Europe. “By this demographic explosion Muslims are overflowing not only the cradle of Christianity in the Balkans but have left their tracks even in the Pyrenees,” Mladic said.

As the slaughter unfolded in Bosnia, and Europe and the U.S. belatedly mustered the will to stop it, Western attitudes towards the post-Cold War world took shape, as well. Neoconservatives and hawkish Democrats found common cause in humanitarian intervention. The media and the public learned from the NATO action in August and September 1995 and the Dayton peace agreement in November that American military might could impose stability—for a time. But 20 years later, with international military and police forces still keeping the peace in Bosnia, we have found there—and at much greater cost elsewhere—that an initially successful intervention by America’s unmatched armed forces cannot impose sectarian comity.

Massimo Calabresi covered the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo as TIME’s Central Europe bureau chief from 1995 to 1999.

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