Movie Reviews: Tales of Two Countries

Winter of Discontent (El sheita elli fat), Egypt
The Act of Killing, Indonesia

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….

So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution of 1789. It ends with the Terror and our hero going to the guillotine. The novel doesn’t have much to do with the two movies I’m reviewing except that they are also about social upheaval, killing, and torture—with emphasis on the last.

The movie I liked is Winter of Discontent (El sheita elli fat), a 2012 Egyptian film about the lead-up to the Tahrir Square revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, after his 30 years in power. It ends with the dictator’s resignation and the release of political prisoners—so we don’t witness the electoral and military counter-revolutions that later squelched the population’s aspirations to establish a free country. We are shown an apparently accurate account of events from 2009 to 2011, not as Dickens’ “winter of despair” but as the opposite, a “winter of discontent” in which very brave people risked arrest and horrible tortures to be part of a revolutionary movement. The movie ends in a “spring of hope”–the Arab Spring.

The Egyptian director and co-writer Ibrahim El Batout depicts the pain inflicted by the police state,“the pain that caused the fury,” we are told. He focuses on the lives of three real people who are wonderfully portrayed by the actors Amr Waked, Salah Al Hanafy, and Farah Youssef. The first two are also co-producers of the film. Amr Waked plays an activist and computer programmer named Amr who is too traumatized by his 2009 arrest and torture to go outside to nearby Tahrir Square during the uprising. He knows he will be located and arrested for uploading dissident news to the internet; he does so anyway. He listens to the chants of the masses in the Square and waits for the police to come for him.

When the police put Amr into a room with other people who have just been arrested in the Tahrir uprising, a doctor among them explains why he participated: he is expecting a baby and wants it to grow up respecting him, because he did not respect his parents. We learn at the end of the film that the doctor was another real person and was killed in the struggle a month after his baby was born.

Not only Amr, but everyone in this beautifully-made movie is wrapped in the gloom of repression. Although it is hard to watch the torture, those scenes are interspersed with scenes of the principals and their neighbors doing ordinary things. They do not for one second get to live outside the social upheaval (one of the main characters is a policeman-torturer and the third is a newscaster for state television). The film’s composition underscores just how real are the events and people it portrays.

Winter of Discontent just had its U.S. premiere in New York by the Lincoln Center Film Society, co-presented by Alwan for the Arts.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

A year earlier, the same Film Society screened a 2013 documentary about killing and torture that is much harder to watch or appreciate. The Act of Killing exposes the  long-suppressed history of Indonesia’s 1965-66 genocide against leftists and others. Unfortunately, it fails to explain much of the context for the genocide, in which between one-half and two million people died (no one knows how many), wiping out the country’s large Communist Party and many other people, including many ethnic-Chinese. This was indeed a “season of Darkness.”

Most Indonesians know little, if anything, about this mass slaughter, which happened during a military coup that brought the military-man-turned-dictator Suharto to power. He ruled Indonesia for 31 years, until forced out by a democracy movement in 1998.  Although the movement and preceding economic crisis removed the dictator and brought in the trappings of democracy, they failed to uproot the military as the major power in the country. (Just like Egypt.)

A ban on public discussion of the 1965-66 genocide meant it was all but forgotten; Indonesian human rights groups have just recently begun to expose it and they still put themselves at risk by doing so. The movie was made by an American, Joshua Oppenheimer, and cannot be shown legally in Indonesia—although of course it has gotten around there.

What is so despicable about this documentary are its stars, elderly men who participated in the mass killing and are proud of their work to this day. Originally petty criminals and thugs, they are now politically connected local businessmen and extortionists, and they exhibit no shame while gleefully re-enacting their barbarism when invited to so by the film-maker. Some play out their fantasies (with his help), including singing, dancing, and dressing as women, so the documentary sometimes looks like a Bollywood movie.

Because their side won, these men see no need to apologize or dissemble. The most sickening scenes are the re-enacted killings, including both one-by-one garroting and burning villages with women and children inside their houses. But for me, the most chilling scene was footage of a recent Hitler-style youth rally conducted by a right-wing political party.

One of the main subjects, in the course of his re-enactments of killing and torture, develops some remorse, but in general they are happy men, or were for nearly 50 years. Talk about the banality of evil! I suppose its sensationalism is why this film had a relatively wide-spread run after its human-rights festival beginnings.

I don’t recommend this movie unless you want to have nightmares for at least the next year. But both movies make you appreciate the power of film.

–Anne Jaclard

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