China, movies, censorship, and The Act of Killing

From Priceonomics, Hollywood's New Chinese Censors:

Some of the changes made to placate China’s censors are the type of harmless edits only a bureaucrat could love, like tweaks to Kung Fu Panda to ensure that the image of China’s beloved panda was not slighted. Others are for graphic content. Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained had to remove some violent scenes and nudity. 

But other changes demanded or encouraged by censors are not as harmless. The pandering to China in Looper (portraying China as a strong superpower) and in Iron Man 3 (flying the protagonist to China to seek out a particularly skilled surgeon) fits nicely with China’s desire to strengthen its global image.

Chinese censors removed a line from the movie Life of Pi, “religion is darkness,” for fear of angering the devout. This suggests that former President Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious society” and avoiding polemic issues motivates the censorship board. 

Censors also successfully demanded changes to the zombie flick World War Z. Originally, the movie cited China as the source of the zombie outbreak. Quartz writes that the script also called for characters to discuss how the Chinese government covered it up - a plotline that censors probably found far too reminiscent of accusations that the Chinese government covered up a SARS outbreak in 2003, as well as more recent viruses. The moviemakers changed the location of the outbreak to Russia.


Indonesia is not anywhere close to the size of China as a movie market, so the question of censorship when it comes to the recently released documentary The Act of Killing is still being answered.

Counting Errol Morris and Werner Herzog among its executive producers, The Act of Killing was the most fascinating movie I saw at TIFF last year. It's a documentary about former Indonesian death squad members who are still alive and thriving in modern Indonesia, but what sets it apart from other documentaries is its approach to driving at the truth.

Instead of simply interviewing the former death squad members about what happened, or sifting through archival footage or photos (I'm not certain if any such material exists), the director asked them to re-enact their atrocities as Hollywood-inspired movies.

Some have criticized the documentary for a dearth of hard historical facts and narrative. That's fair.

However, this documentary is less just hand-wringing over a historical atrocity than an examination of the interplay between narrative and memory. He could've asked these murderers what happened, but it's not clear that they'd be any more truthful than they were when asked to recreate those events. What's shocking is how much they actually embrace the exercise and cast their movies in the genres they love: gangster films, musicals, and westerns.

In one particularly unforgettable scene, the death squad member we spend the most time following, Anwar Congo, takes the film crew to a theater where he recalls swaggering out after an uplifting Elvis movie and then crossing the street to a building where they killed several people while still flush with the emotional high from the movie.

What Oppenheimer does with Congo and others is essentially lead them through a crude sense memory exercise. It's using method acting as a way of tunneling into the past and trying to bring about an emotional reckoning for these men. 

The most famous instance of this is a fictional one, of course. Hamlet has a theatre troupe act out what he suspects was the murder of his father in front of the suspected murderer, his uncle Claudius. In this case, Anwar Congo and others are themselves the actors, and they write their own narrative. Given those differences, does Oppenheimer "catch the conscience of the king"? It's worth seeing the documentary to judge for yourself.

Here Joshua Oppenheimer talks about how he avoided having The Act of Killing banned in Indonesia (video).  How people receive it in Indonesia is the most important response, and what little I've read so far suggests it is causing Indonesians to rethink their history.

The internet, as I've noted many times before, is greatest at increasing the accessibility and distribution of information. Given the importance of information in construction of narrative, it's not surprising that China would put up a Great Firewall, and the censorship of movies that come into its market from abroad is simply another type of information that must be filtered.

If you visit China, what's disturbing when you speak to many of the people there is that the censorship works. To the victors belong the illusion.