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The Act of Killing

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

It’s devastating, at times it’s barely watchable, and it’s unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen. It’s been sitting on my fireplace mantle in my family room for a while now, because I’ve been almost afraid to watch it—and now that I’ve seen it, it’s something that will prove impossible to forget. I wish that these were the types of films that mainstream audiences were scrambling to see after the Oscar nominations were announced last week(instead of “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”), because a documentary like this actually means something. It teaches you something about the world around you. It should send shudders down your spine. Even after the horrors of 9/11 over twelve years ago(a catastrophic incident I was able to watch unfold out the kitchen window of my office building), I find that most people I meet are still insulated and clueless. Films like “The Act of Killing” are like a glass of cold water being thrown in your face. It’s remarkable that something like this even manages to get made.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his team(try to count how many times you read the word “Anonymous” during the end credits, to appreciate the fear involved in being associated with this venture)have done something extraordinary. Seemingly without too much persuasion, they’ve talked a number of actual killers into recreating the assassinations they’ve enacted upon Indonesian citizens, as members of a notorious death squad. Sent by the new government, which had recently overthrown the old one, to seek out and kill suspected communists in the years 1965-66, the men are now almost eager to tell their tales over 40 years later. One is a kindly looking grandfather(Anwar Congo, arguably the “star” of this feature). Another is cold, stoic and remorseless. A third appears youthful and jolly, yet is also scraggly-haired and obese. These men were evil executioners? And then they demonstrate for you how they did things like wrap wire around men’s necks and strangled them to death. They reenact mass exterminations using real townsfolk(including children), and laugh about it afterwards recalling how scared everyone was. But the obvious scars and terror are easily discernible. Some of the people involved in the “play-acting” are old enough to have witnessed the actual events. And a number of the children partaking in the pantomime are so disturbed by the authenticity of the performed scenes, that they weep uncontrollably when the “show” is finally over. And adding to the bizarre nature of this filmed document, is the additional bonus of killers willingly dressing up like their favorite movie gangsters(the obese one even has no issue garishly masquerading as a woman!)to add additional theatricality to their moment in the spotlight. Some of these re-enactments include usage of stage blood and movie props. It’s astonishing in its hubris.

There is an incredible sequence, involving the grandfatherly murderer, that is certain to be debated for years to come. Was that whole final “outburst” for real? It will remain ambiguous, I’m certain, but the implications of the event are fascinating. I’ve often espoused that there is really no such thing as a “reality show”, because once that camera is on you—candor goes out the window. And for all its supposed “truthfulness”, you have to wonder how much of “The Act of Killing” is embellished. But in this case, that probability actually strengthens the finished piece, because you eventually convince yourself that the horror of that period was certainly far worse than what is being presented. There is apparently an extended director’s cut of this documentary, but I don’t know if I could possibly stomach anything more. It is im-possible to “unwatch” something like this motion picture, and many of you will wish that you could. Btw, documentary heavyweights Werner Herzog and Errol Morris were instrumental in bringing this film to the masses. It’s been reported that upon viewing an early screening, they immediately wanted to sign on as executive producers. The finished product contains some English, but is mostly Indonesian with English subtitles. “The Act of Killing” is harrowing and shattering, but it’s unquestionably among the finest films released in 2013.     Grade:  A

next review up:  “The Lone Ranger”

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2 comments on “The Act of Killing

  1. “War crimes are defined by the winners.” Ain’t that the truth.

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