This is the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. The Act of Killing is a defiantly complex and lucent film; the same sort of arresting and exhausting cinematic experience as seeing Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour holocaust documentary, Shoah, in one session. It may not be quite as lengthy (a mere 159 minutes), but from it’s experimental opening moments, to the haunting final credits, I was utterly stunned throughout.
After a surrealist, fever dream prologue, including sermonic dancing in front of a gushing waterfall to the sounds of Matt Monro singing ‘Born Free’, The Act of Killing dives in with some expository title cards. Throughout 1965, at least one million people – all loosely identified as communists – were killed in cold blood under governmental command in Indonesia. Unable to conduct such a mass genocide on their own, the paramilitary Pancasila Youth group outsourced a high number of killings to local, low end gangster clans.
Almost fifty years later and back in the present day, the incumbent Indonesian government hasn’t changed. These hundreds, perhaps thousands of murderers are yet to meet the justice they deserve. They are free to wander the streets, amongst the descendants of the people they killed, and are held up as local heroes.
American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer introduces us to one of these local heroes. Anwar Congo is a hollow coat of a man. Dressed in hawaiian shirts and beaming a welcoming teethy smile, he remorselessly claims to have killed one thousand men, using nothing but his bare hands and fishing wire. He’s also a huge cinema buff. Before the genocide, he was a local thug scalping tickets outside the town’s picture house. The Indonesian-speaking Oppenheimer and his crew think up a bright idea. Instead of just recounting the horrific crimes committed – which Angwar and co still see as valiant, patriotic acts – they should recreate them as a a glossy feature film. Congo loves the idea and, along with his rotund best friend Herman (also a killer) and a newspaper journalist (a complicit witness to the murders), they reenact the striking, lucid nightmares that haunt their minds and the broken societies that their acts of killing have since left behind (that opening prologue, and the above camera still are both taken from Congo’s debut movie).
There may be things that I dislike about The Act of Killing, but they are alarmingly some of the reasons why I think it to be such a masterpiece. Close to three hours, we witness these former gangsters, or ‘free men’ as they and the government like to call them, fondly looking back at the time when they executed alleged communists. They look back at the genocide with nostalgia, they deem the acts as important and necessary, the many affectations even end up becoming banal. All the while, the film they strive to create – which is one part Clint Eastwood western and another Italian Giallo horror – presents a subtext which starkly shows the blackest depths of these men’s minds, without ever judging them. After all, they are to some degree, working as authoritative filmmaker.
Oppenheimer doesn’t try to counter balance such vile human nature with the victims or genocide survivors. It’s hardly nonpartisan filmmaking, but why the fuck should it be? This visionary filmmaker presents some of the most despicable creatures I have ever seen on screen. Making them all the more terrifying by repetitiously presenting them as sympathetic human beings; just like you or I. Oppenheimer doesn’t distance them, put them on a pedestal, nor out of consciousness – they aren’t pages in a history book, they are people living amongst us today. People with grandkids and mortgages; with dental plans and humour. The only difference is, these people have no state of contrition.
By mixing the documentary footage with Congo’s stylised reenactments, Oppenheimer is able to deftly shift between the borders of artefact and artifice; with the formalities of standardised observational documentary practice left by the road side.
Yes, I’m clearly gushing with emotion over The Act of Killing. The final scene is so crushing and inexplicably powerful that words would do not do it justice. In the final credits, it was unsurprising to see the names Errol Morris and Werner Herzog added to the exec producer roster. Arguably the most esteemed documentary filmmakers working today, it’s a film worthy of mass critical and polemical attention.
But would I recommend it? It’s an extremely difficult, testing and borderline dangerous documentary, which has seen Oppenheimer and some of his crew extradited from Indonesia altogether. If you think you can handle an unflinching three hours self-portrait of impenitent murderers, then The Act of Killing is an absolute must. Extraordinary and audacious filmmaking, and one of the finest movies I’ve seen this year. Perhaps ever.
Be sure to visit the film’s website for comprehensive information, production notes and appraisals. With a Scandinavian production crew, and financially supported by the Danish Film Institute, The Act of Killing was the perfect ending to my CPH:DOX Film festival experience, where it also won the award for best documentary. That was back in November, 2012. Now watch the film storm cinemas worldwide.