The Act of Killing

Last Updated: April 18, 2014By Tags: ,

If there were a subtitle to Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” it could be “Fun Loving War Criminals.” A cadre of aging Indonesian gangsters relive their part in a pogrom against communists in the sixties.

In the political chaos of the time, the Indoneisan army staged a coup in order to pre-empt a suspected communist takeover of the government and saved Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver (familiar to you if you’ve seen “The Year of Living Dangerously”). In the following years, the government hired bands of street thugs to murder their political opponents and conduct a reign of terror.

Among the most infamous killers was a man named Anwar Congo. A loving grandfather and a charismatic personality, with a taste for movies and dancing, he shows no sadness at the sadistic deaths of a thousand men. The film tracks Congo and several of his fellow killers, relating the stories of their murderous duties.

This is where the movie gets strange. Rather than do a conventional interview documentary about the time, Oppenheimer instead asks the killers to re-enact their acts of killing. Having little shame about them, the men agree. Enters the feast of weirdness and, in at least one case, a changed perspective.

How weird does the film get? It depends on how strange you consider a corpulent cross-dresser. The movie starts a musical sequence and captures conversation that no sane person should be having. When it isn’t squeezing cream from the irony tube, the documentary paints an sharp-eyed critique of Indonesia, which appears to be run by a Nazi-like “paramilitary” organization ruling by oppression and kleptocracy. The parallels to the S.A. are chilling.

“The Act of Killing” counts among its producers two famous documentarians, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Morris docs like to let their subject hang themselves, and that is evident in the design. The film more greatly resembles Herzog’s sense for the ecstatic truth–not a strictly factual documentary, but one that uses storytelling elements to get to the heart of the matter.

“The Act of Killing” touches on any number of things. There is the inevitable look into the heart of darkness that is pretty much unavoidable for such a film. There is also the disturbing connection between Hollywood films and the violence the men perpetrate (they took inspiration from hard-boiled gangster films of the era.) The film does an capable job of capturing what’s there and what’s always going to be there in documentaries about political oppression, but I’m less certain about the success of its flights into surrealism. It’s a very direct story with a curveball approach.

This is our second review of “The Act of Killing.” Read Fred Pieters’s review here.

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