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Monday 5 August 2013

Film Review: The Act of Killing

This weekend I saw one of the best movies I will ever see, a documentary entirely specific and unto itself. No other film can borrow its techniques, at least not without wildly different results. Even that is unlikely to happen, because the kind of intelligence and nerves-of-steel resolve it takes to make something like this are rare.

The Act of Killing follows several perpetrators of the 1965 communist purge in Indonesia, a genocide that killed at least half a million people. Far from being held accountable, the killers are still feared and respected in Indonesia today. The state is so supportive of them that when director Joshua Oppenheimer tried to make a documentary about the survivors of the massacre, he was frustrated at every turn. His solution was to approach the killers, who were only too happy to boast about their exploits. Together they made a harrowing film.

Oppenheimer offered to let the killers re-enact their crimes for the camera however they saw fit. Their bizarre interpretations involve 1940s gangster costumes and dance interludes. As compelling as the concept is, it mostly acts as a framing device for the action behind the scenes: executioner Anwar Congo sees nothing wrong in screening a gory murder scene for his grandchildren. An actor playing a communist confesses that his stepfather was murdered. The killers discuss the need for comic relief.

The film is short on historical details, but the decision works in its favour. Its purpose is not to inform you of names and dates but to show you, quite painfully, what living in a distorted reality looks like from the outside. There is an inherent guilt that comes with thinking you are having a profound experience through film, when that film is showing you things more horrifying and violent than you could ever truly guess at. The The Act of Killing reckons with that by showing the executioners not as sadistic visionaries, but stunted adolescents. Their method of dispatching communists was borrowed from The Godfather, their self-image as gangsters borrowed from American cinema. The question of how their glorified interpretation of the past will actually be perceived occurs to them late, and only hazily. What makes this doubly sickening is how easy it becomes to see where one's own reality might be distorted. I thought of recent stories about unchecked surveillance of citizens in Canada and the United States, and could imagine some choice news clips slotting into a wrenching documentary forty years from now.

That's the cynical, despairing side, but there is also a hopeful one. In The Act of Killing you can see Anwar Congo, however dimly, coming to reckon with his crimes through the reenactment. It happens through the images themselves, and simply the process of trying to corral his memories into a final product. It's powerful stuff, and it makes the documentary much more than a commentary on itself. Something about the blend of surrealism, politics, and psychology makes it operate on more levels than I can name or guess at.

I'm intimidated simply writing about it, because anything I say is bound to be reductive. I can only recommend The Act of Killing as one of the most potent and thought-provoking things you're bound to see. When I left the theatre I was stunned into silence, knowing I could probably count on one hand the number of films that had affected me like this. Werner Herzog agrees: "the film is so powerful, so frightening, and so surreal that it will take decades until you see something of that caliber again. It just doesn’t happen very often."

Watch the trailer, then go see the movie:

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