The Act of Killing

August 11, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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I see a lot of films.  This, I suppose, will surprise no one.  One end result of all that watching is that I rarely see something genuinely new.  The last time may have been 7 years ago with John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” This documentary, “The Act of Killing,” begins with an introduction by the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, in which he attempts to prepare the audience for what we are about to see and to beg us to stick it out.  I could not help but wonder if it had been added after test audience reactions.  There is little I can do to explain this movie that will in any way give you an experience of it.  Between 1965-1966 paramilitary goons killed some 2.5 million Indonesians who opposed to military take over of the government. They targeted mostly ethnic Chinese and “communists.” Amongst the countless men who did this was a petty film-ticket scalper, raised to mass murderer, named Anwar Congo. Now in his 70s, he and his friends have agreed to make a film about their “exploits.” Oppenheimer, who is fluent in Indonesian, took 6 years to make this movie. Along the way, he clearly became very close to this group of killers, who affectionately call him “Josh” throughout the film. Through some decision made off camera, they all decide they are going to film reenactments of their most brutal abuses with all of them (and their friends, neighbors, and random other people) playing all the key parts. Plus, they choose to do this while mimicking the Hollywood genre’s they so deeply love: Noir, Spaghetti Westerns, and what I think were nods to “The Deerhunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (I’m not kidding).  We then get the documentary of them planning, staging and enacting various scenes in various costumes. Add into this that one of these ruthless killers (Herman Koto) has a penchant for Divine-esque drag. It is as bizarre, inexplicable and phantasmagorical as it sounds.  Some of the images are stunningly beautiful, just on their own grounds; when you add context, they can be a bit dizzying. While the director assures us that we can laugh at times and (he swears) they sure did in Indonesia, I found it all to be too grim to be funny. In between grisly reenactments, these killers talk about what they did in unbelievably frank terms.  Some, such as Ibrahim Sinik, are quite proud.  Others, like Adi Zulkadry, are afraid of how the documentary will be perceived and remain defiant that the winners get to define what is or is not wrong.  And then there is Anwar Congo. The main focus on the film, Congo allegedly killed around 1,000 people himself during that genocidal year. He wants this film to show the truth of what happen but what he perceives the truth to be is harder to ascertain. He appears to be driven by nightmares of what he has done and seems to show grief and empathy toward the end of the film. However, I’m not so sure I wasn’t just looking at a master manipulator gauging which way the wind is blowing and trying to spin his image. It was hard to be sure but I was left with the nagging feeling that Congo’s best acting was occurring during the unscripted parts of the film. He seemed no closer to real insight to me but do you need to have insight to have remorse? When the screen finally went black, I was left with a sort of vertigo, not quite sure where to land after this bizarre journey but desperately wanting to talk it through. What is evil? What are it’s costs to those who go unpunished? What does remorse look like and how do we judge it? And does it matter? Playing at the same theater this weekend is an indie film about Hannah Arendt, the woman credited with creating the phrase, “the banality of evil.” When I think of Anwar Congo, it seems appropriate.

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  1. […] the unnervingly brilliant 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing” (you can read my review here). That stands as one of the most remarkable documentaries I have seen in recent memory. In it, we […]


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