Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

the act of killing

[updates below]

This film opened in New York City yesterday, so I read. I saw it a couple of months ago here in Paris. I’ve never seen a documentary like it (well, actually I have; see below). I was floored by it. It left me speechless. It’s about what happened in Indonesia in 1965-66, after the overthrow of Sukarno, when 500,000 to one million members and supporters of the Indonesian communist party—who were mainly ethnic Chinese—were massacred by the (US-backed) regime of General Suharto. Like any geopolitically-knowledgeable person I, of course, knew about the massacres and their scale but not the details, of how they were carried out or of their historical memory in Indonesia. After seeing the documentary, one knows all about it and then some. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent two years in Medan—the largest city in Sumatra—, interviewing and filming some of the perpetrators of the massacres there: local criminals and thugs who were recruited into the regime’s paramilitary youth organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The men, who are getting up there in age, regret nothing. Au contraire, they’re proud of what they did. They willingly—almost gleefully—talked of how they went about selecting the victims and then tortured and executed them (mainly by strangulation and demonstrating the method, which looks efficient indeed; a fine way to save on ammunition, and with no blood). They had great fun speaking about and playacting their deeds. No shame. And their reputations are well-known, not only locally but nationally. They’re tied in with government officials, even ministers, as the film shows, and with their actions in 1965-66 given positive recognition, recounted on television talk shows, etc. As one journalist observed (not in the film), it’s as if Hitler and his accomplices had survived and then gotten together fifty years later to act out their favorite scenes of the Holocaust before a movie camera, and were celebrated in Germany today. As for families of the victims, they maintain a low profile. No demands for justice or retribution, as they know what would likely happen to them were they to make an issue of it.

That’s as much as I’ll say about the film, which absolutely has to be seen to be believed. For more, see this very good essay on the NYR Blog by Francine Prose, “Indonesia’s happy killers.” And for those who read French, there’s this lengthy and informative interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on the Allociné website. The film’s website is here.

Seeing the film reminded me of a similar one that I saw in 2006, ‘Massaker’, by German filmmaker Monika Borgmann and (her Lebanese husband) Lokman Slim, on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. The documentary consisted of interviews with six former militiamen in the Lebanese Forces, now in their 40s, who participated in the massacre. The men were interviewed separately, indoors, and from the torso down—i.e. no faces, as they feared retribution if their identities were known. Of the six, only one expressed even an inkling of regret for what he did. They all spoke in matter-of-fact detail and without remorse of the killing they perpetrated over those three days in September ’82—of babies, children, women, elderly people—, of women they gang-raped before murdering, and other such acts. Listening to their accents (in dialectical Arabic, which I won’t say I understood too well), it was clear they’re of modest social origins, probably from villages in Mount Lebanon. It was a bone-chilling documentary—and which hardly anyone saw (and no one I know), as it didn’t receive the same attention as ‘The Act of Killing’ presently is. A few of the Paris critics reacted negatively to the film, calling it voyeuristic and amoral. I ignored them. As with ‘The Act of Killing’, it is an important document, as it shows something about the behavior of human beings which, given the right conditions and circumstances, could happen anywhere.

UPDATE: TNR has an article (July 29th) on “The making of a surprise hit documentary about genocide: Joshua Oppenheimer on ‘The Act of Killing’.” And the July-August issue of Film Comment has an interview with Oppenheimer.

2nd UPDATE: Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, has an op-ed—well worth reading—in the NYT on “Indonesia and the act of forgetting.” (February 28, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: The NYT has an article on how the “‘Act of Killing’ film fails to stir Indonesia.” (March 2, 2014)

massaker affiche

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Tiananmen Square, Beijing (Photo: Oded Balilty/Associated Press)

Tiananmen Square, Beijing (Photo: Oded Balilty/AP)

I had a post with this title back in October ’11, on the L.A. smog of past decades and in which I asked how libertarians would have dealt with it in the absence of state regulation and environmental legislation. I never got any kind of response, needless to say—not from a free-marketeer, at any rate, though one did send an email with a link to an article about how anti-pollution regulations hinder job creation, or something like that, but that in no way addressed my question. Now we’ve been reading about the off-the-scales smog alert in Beijing the other day and comparisons with the infamous London pea soup fog that afflicted that city for well over a century, until the first clear air laws were enacted there in the 1950s. London was hardly the only city with a present-day Beijing-like smog problem, of course. The Atlantic has a piece today on smog in Pittsburgh through the mid 20th century. Incredible to think that people lived with this (as they live with it today in Beijing and elsewhere). Scroll down and click on the link of the photo show of what Pittsburgh looked like at noon.

So I repeat my question to libertarians, and to anti-government Tea Party GOP types more generally: if they had their way and government got out of the business of environmental regulation—and with clean air and other such acts repealed in the interest of an unfettered free market, not to mention abolishing subsidies for mass transit—, what do they think would happen pollution-wise? If there were a return to the smog status quo ante—an inevitability, one would presume—what would they propose doing about it, if anything?

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for a response.

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The Ditch & 11 Flowers

I saw two Chinese films this weekend set during the Maoist era. One was ‘The Ditch’ (in France: ‘Le Fossé’), directed by Wang Bing, who is mainly known for his marathon documentaries on socio-economic transformations in contemporary China (none of which I’ve seen). This is one of the most horrifying films I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It takes place in 1960, in the Jiabiangou Reeducation Camp in Gansu province—in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert—, where intellectuals—including many party members—who were arrested and condemned during the 1957-61 “anti-rightest campaign” were sent to perform slave labor and starve to death. It was one small camp in the Chinese Gulag. The pic is based on testimony by survivors recounted in a book by Yang Xianhui, which has been translated into English (here and here). It is objectively a very good film but is hard to watch, as the nightmarish reality it depicts was precisely that: the reality of China during the Maoist era. I won’t recount particular scenes, as one may read them in the reviews (here, here, and here; et critiques françaises ici). Though one won’t spend an enjoyable two hours watching it, it should nonetheless be seen, particularly by those who had—and may still have—the slightest illusions that communist regimes were somehow more just than others despite their dictatorial nature, or who still find something to defend in communism such as it really existed.

I know something about China of the period, having been a teenage Maoist in the early-mid 1970s, when I read Edgar Snow and other apologetics for the Maoist regime (and avoided critical accounts, e.g. Simon Leys), and supported what (I thought) was happening there. I did likewise for Castro’s Cuba, Vietnam, and other Third World Marxist regimes and guerrilla movements, BTW (though never liked the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite states). It was the period, now long past.

The other film was ’11 Flowers’, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. It is more or less autobiographical, set in 1975 in a town in inland Guiyang province, where armaments factories were relocated by the regime from Shanghai and other coastal cities, and their personnel along with them—but where members of the urban educated classes condemned during the Cultural Revolution were also sent to do manual labor. The main character is an 11-12 year old boy—the director in his youth—who, along with his pals, observes the political convulsions of the Maoist era in its final years. There is a plot and which comes together in the second half of the film, where one gets a glimpse into one of the countless personal tragedies of the Cultural Revolution. The pic is worth seeing. For Hollywood press reviews see here and here, and French ones here, here, and here. And one may see a trailer here.

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If one is interested in aviation and world travel, Patrick Smith’s blog, Ask the Pilot, at Salon.com is a must. Patrick is a professional pilot—currently for cargo—, travels the world, and blogs about it. About planes and the world. His blog is great. I’ve been following it for years. His latest post is from Bombay, a.k.a. Mumbai, and some of his observations and experiences are precisely those I had on my last visit to that impossible hellhole of a city over twenty years ago, notably on the several hundred square mile sewage dump in the Arabian Sea one overflies on the landing approach to the airport—a sight that has to be seen to be believed—and the city’s nightmarish traffic. He apparently didn’t take the suburban train from Victoria station to the city’s northern districts, where one passes through the most appalling shantytowns one will see anywhere on this planet. I went into the heart of the poorest quarters of Mexico City and Cairo in the mid 1980s, which were positively high class compared to those in Bombay. My father lived in Bombay during his high school and undergraduate university years. His memories of the city were fond. Likewise for Salman Rushdie. Bombay must have been a fine, even exhilarating, city back then. Le bon vieux temps.

UPDATE: Patrick Smith’s blog has moved from Salon to its own site, here. (December 2)

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China’s crackdown

Here’s an article on China’s crackdown on human-rights lawyers, activists, and online dissidents. The author is a personal friend (writing under a nom d’emprunt).

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