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Two Documentaries Examine Violence, Human And Animal

The new documentary <em>Blackfish </em>looks at the practice of keeping orca whales in captivity.
The new documentary Blackfish looks at the practice of keeping orca whales in captivity.

Two documentaries, Blackfish and The Act of Killing, are making waves around the world. The first riles you up; the second blows your mind.

"Blackfish" is the Inuits' name for the orca, a creature that they say is worthy of veneration but that you don't want to mess with — the chief example in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish being Tilikum, responsible for two, possibly three human deaths.

The movie is Tilikum's story — along with the story of other orcas kept in captivity in theme parks like SeaWorld.

Tilikum was snatched from his mother early, and a mother whale who loses a child makes sounds that transcend species. You hear mothers' cries in Blackfish, which opens with a description by one participant and one researcher of a 1970 hunt for young whales.

<em>The Act of Killing</em> examines the genocide in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966.
The Act of Killing examines the genocide in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966.

The sequence is almost too upsetting to watch, and Blackfish gets yet more painful. Whales have been shown to be complex, emotional beings, and former Orlando SeaWorld trainers recall the anguish of mother-child separations and the obvious psychological impact of captivity. The ex-trainers' tearful — sometimes shame-filled — recollections alternate with footage of their younger selves smiling and declaiming for SeaWorld audiences, doing tricks with whales they came to love.

They even loved Tilikum, whose mutilation of the esteemed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 sent SeaWorld into PR overdrive, the company claiming she was grabbed by a ponytail she shouldn't have left dangling. Witnesses in Blackfish make a more compelling case that she was attacked. Her death is, thankfully, not shown, although the movie is not for the squeamish.

SeaWorld officials, who declined to be interviewed for the film, are calling it "inaccurate and misleading." Meanwhile, Tilikum remains at SeaWorld — though is, in the words of one researcher, "psychotic." He's valuable breeding material, though; his semen is worth millions.

Josh Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing centers on the massacre in Indonesia in the mid-'60s of communists and suspected communists. Estimates of the dead vary — it could have been a million or more. Most were executed by paramilitaries in league with then-Gen. and future President Suharto. The killers are still there, unpunished, even honored.

And they love movies, especially gangster movies. So when Oppenheimer approached them to make a film — to help write and direct their life stories, even put on makeup and costumes and re-enact scenes, they agreed with enthusiasm. They even participated in flabbergasting songs and dances — big production numbers.

With the film's release, some subjects have backpedaled, saying they misunderstood the project. What we see, though, leaves little room for misunderstanding.

The principal subject is Anwar Congo, leader of an elite death squad. He can look grandfatherly in one shot, hard in the next. He loves Hollywood gangsters. He says the word "gangster" means "free man." Anwar boasts of designing ways to kill people with thin wires to keep blood from spurting. But he's also having nightmares about his victims.

On the other hand, a former colleague of his named Adi Zulkadry has no patience for guilt. He's a relativist. War crimes, he says, are defined by the winners. He refuses to be branded a war criminal.

Both men demonstrate interrogation, torture and killing, in one case with a man playing someone resembling his own murdered stepfather. A re-enactment of a massacre and the burning of a village features women and children who can't stop sobbing long after the director has yelled cut.

Most of what we see is bizarre to the point of trippiness. But The Act of Killing documents a higher reality. By allowing murderers to write, direct and perform, Oppenheimer not only puts the horror in the present tense, he also shows you how these men viewed their actions, the myths they told themselves and one another. It's one of the most lucid portraits of evil I've ever seen.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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