Posted by: cctracker | March 9, 2013

True/False in Town, Village, and World

Once a year Columbia, Missouri is the site of one of the world’s great film festivals: True/False.


Who knew? Columbia is a pretty hip college town. With two son’s living there and the other a frequent visitor, I’ve recently come to really appreciate its low slung, human-scale, niche-filled, bohemian cool.


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But as far as most of the country, much less the world, is concerned, I figured it was just another  town. Though we’re in the center of the country, nothing from “Missouri“–I think I finally hear that name the way it sounds to  folks from everywhere else–ever seems to be the center of attention.

But if you are into film, this event breaks the stereotype. This year’s festival featured over 30 documentaries from film makers all over the world. Many of the directors come with their films and talk with audience after the screenings and later, in the pubs. Celebrities stroll snowy sidewalks the way I hear they do in Telluride and Park City. This year’s True/False crowd broke attendance records with over 35,000 people gathering in theaters all over town. I’m still shocked that so few folks in the mid-west seem to know about it.

I saw one film at the festival: “Village at the End of the World.” It documents just under two years in the recent history of a tiny village on the east coast of Greenland. The film shows us a cluster of 25 or 30 man-made structures huddled on a strip of land sitting in a low saddle between two great masses of rock.  The sea stretches out before them, a bay wraps in behind.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m always drawn to the drama of particular human communities and the unique quality of their connection to the land. I was mesmerized by the images of a a tiny village on the vast, indifferent but stunningly beautiful canvas of ocean, ice and barren rock. The film tells a story of how the people successfully face down extinction by reclaiming a fish processing plant shuttered by the government and a large conglomerate. One of the main characters is a guy who’s job is to empty the toilet of every house by hand and cart the sludge down rocky pathways to the edge of the sea for dumping. You can imagine the one-liners.  The film has stayed with me. According to our host’s remarks before the screening, it was one of the few films at the festival to offer a positive, somewhat uplifting meditation on human potential.

But the film that has affected me most is one I didn’t see. It is called “The Act of Killing.” I came across a review of it by Henry Flaxfield.  I’m sharing here with the author’s permission because it speaks powerfully to one the most important underlying themes of this blog.

Yesterday I began a spiritual quest. I attended  a screening of “The Act of Killing” at the True/False film fest in Columbia, Missouri. The film is a devastating, numbing, core-shaking, revolution in documentary filmmaking.  It is an intimate telling of genocide from the mouths of the perpetrators themselves, self-proclaimed sadistic “gangsters“ who not only justify the killing, rape and  torture of thousands of suspected communists in Indonesia, but actively boast about it. In response to seeing a documentary on the brutal ‘65-66 genocide, they decide make their own film to show the world how they see themselves: sadistic yet disturbingly heroic.


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The documentary captures them on set, in full make-up either reenacting the killings  or playing the part of their communist victims.


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They revel in sadism the way one might idealize a freewheeling youth. Describing torturing their victims by “shoving wood up [their] anus until they die,” they laugh as if reminiscing about good-ol’ college days getting into trouble. Their cold-hearted, cruelty and the near silence of opposing voices is, in part, a testimony to the  triumph of the anti-communist rhetoric of the right-wing Pancasila Youth Paramilitary movement and their millions of members. The film shows the killers appearing on national talk shows, smiling in funny hats and loud outfits, answering questions about their heroic efforts to exterminate the threat of communism. They have yet to be condemned publicly or tried in court.

The story was so immense and horrific, I found myself unable to fully penetrate the content or even to get personally invested. I put up an emotional shield and let it wash by, though the tension in the small, stuffy theater, filled with trendy youths, was inescapably palpable. Inevitably, the shield began to crack as the film trudged on. The “gangsters” along with an army of youths, burned raped and pillaged a village of extras playing the role of “communists”, taking the roles to earn extra cash. One talked in between takes of rape and murder about how “delicious” it was to rape virgin communist girls, especially the ones “14 or younger.”  Somehow, I was able to keep letting these scenes go by, still  resisting processing it all.

The shield  crumbled near the end. Anwar Congo, the main character in the film who admits to personally killing close to 1,000 people, asks to watch a scene in the movie in which he himself is tortured and murdered in a dark, smoky, film noir-ish room by his genocidal partner in crime wearing a suit, tie and cocked hat reminiscent of MacMurry or Cagney.  The look is no coincidence: the two are Hollywood fanatics.

Anwar watches the scene with his two grandchildren, boys near the ages of 7-9. He says lovingly: “look at your Grandpa on the movie… See how good I am… See, it’s just a film.”  The innocent faces are nestled next to the worn face of their murderous Grandpa, watching him act out the last minutes of a tortured human life. Anwar comments to the director: “In this scene I could feel what they felt…” Director Josh Oppenheimer quickly responds: “But Anwar, this is a movie. The people you killed actually knew they were going to die.” Anwar looks on contemplatively and, after a few moments, says:  “I know it was wrong..” and in the first demonstration of his humanity in the film, wipes away tears.

In the final scene at night, Anwar revisits a concrete slab on the roof of an apparel store where he killed many blind-folded men with a piano wire. The film had opened at the same spot with him explaining the executions and reminiscing about dancing and drinking with his friends out on the town afterward in further desecration of the lives he’d taken.

Now, at the end, in the silence of night, the break-down building inside him throughout the film comes to the surface.  He collapses. He tries to recount again, as he did at the beginning, what happened here, but can barely spit out half a sentence before mumbling:  “I know it was wrong…” For the next few minutes he audibly vomits and is seized with dry heaves, humanity rushing back so violently that his body rejects it.


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It was this core-shaking and violent glimpse of humanity in the last minutes of the film that broke my own shield. This is genocide explained from the point of view of the perpetrator, arrogance slowly crumbling before violent internal turbulence in sober acknowledgment of the truth. I had never witnessed anything so horrifyingly human in my life.

The harder truth to swallow is that Anwar Congo is just one player in charge of just one of the many death squads in this genocide, accounting for only a small percentage of the 500,000 to 1,000,000 Indonesians executed between 1965 and 1966. Most likely the CIA had a to role play. Most of all, it disturbed me that I was completely ignorant that a genocide of this scale had even taken place. How many other cultures have been victimized since then? Even worse, how many are ongoing and unreported by Western media as I type? The scale of human suffering is incomprehensible.

My spiritual quest was born in this moment. The ugliness of humanity reared its head. I grasped  for intellectual and critical thinking skills, but they felt inadequate and even somehow inappropriate. I had to “move on” and let the film be felt only skin-deep until I was able to unpack it.

My hope is to discover a spiritual identity that can provide the resources and foundation to articulate, in a more targeted way, a response to my experiences. I hope to find a base from which to respond, not only to something so vile , but also to those things that I feel, deep down in my bones, are good in the world. On such a foundation, perhaps, my intellectual yearning can confidently rest.


  1. Thanks, Henry Flaxfield, for the very personal and heart felt response. I think too often we as people put up a shield, as you said, to protect ourselves from these unspeakable horrors. I’m glad you expressed your thoughts. Keep the journey going.

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