Review: The Act of Killing

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Anwar Congo and dummy in The Act of Killing

Anwar Congo is a slender, grizzled old man from Indonesia who enjoys spending time with his grandkids. But back in the 1960s, he tortured and killed hundreds of people suspected of being Communists. He is one of several such men that filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent years filming for his movie The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer had hoped to make an earlier film about the culture of fear in Indonesia, but was thwarted along the way. So he asked these boastful killers to participate in a film where they would play themselves and/or the victims they murdered.

This idea isn't as bizarre as it sounds. During the course of their filmmaking, selective memory is evident as a former prison guard confesses he had no idea that folks were being tortured in the office next to him (doubtful!).  Sadism serves as a sort of theme. Congo frets that he doesn't want to come off as sadistic in the film they're making, and repeatedly says -- almost as if to assure himself -- that he was never sadistic in his treatment of the people he killed. And yet. During a break from shooting a pillage scene, one of Congo's pals (trigger warning!) fondly remembers his days of raping 14-year-old girls, and the group around him makes sounds of approval. Another of Congo's contemporaries recalls killing Chinese people in the streets -- including the father of his girlfriend at the time. 

Many moments of The Act of Killing cause a visceral reaction; I found myself kneading my collarbone during such discomforting scenes. One moment towards the end almost made me gag.

Oppenheimer never tells you in an explicit fashion how you are supposed to feel about these men. By including their performances in these re-enactments and showing their conversations with others, it's challenging to view them as monsters.  These gangsters may come off as despicable, but are still moral beings. Knowing that these men who committed such violent, horrific acts are lauded by the powers-that-be in their country -- that is truly frightening.

Given the unique formula here, The Act of Killing is not your typical documentary. Oppenheimer's film is aflame with color, from the fiery red uniforms of the Pancasila Youth military force, led by their disturbingly misogynist general, to the pastel vibrancy of the dresses gangster Herman Koto wears during the shooting of the movie and the muddy brown of the fake blood used in their moviemaking. The film is so intense and haunting that it might be sublime. As the filmmaker said during a Q&A after the screening, "This truth is undeniable." The Act of Killing is no easy feat to get through, but my hope is people will try.

Austin/Texas connections: Joshua Oppenheimer was born in Austin. This documentary screened at SXSW earlier this year, and is being distributed by Austin-based Drafthouse Films.

Note: Oppenheimer will participate in a Skype Q&A after the 2pm Saturday and Sunday screenings of The Act of Killing at Alamo Slaughter.

For another point of view on The Act of Killing, read Rod Paddock's review from SXSW.

Mesmerizing

It's an overused word, but it completely describes this film. I sat there slack-jawed at times, amazed at how brutal these people were, yet how nonchalant they treated their past. But then you think about it. And think. And think some more. During their time, and in their power structure, they believed it was right. So they gloat about it because they're celebrities and still deified for what they did to the "communists."

And then you think. And then think some more. And your view keeps warping from being sickened by what these people did, to trying to understand how they could do it and justify it, to feeling bad for them in their weak moments, when they're humanized, then feel horrible about yourself for feeling bad about them.

The way that The Act of Killing shows them as human beings will turn a lot of people off, because people want the black and white dichotomy and to not think of horrible people as actual people, but this makes you consider that, and simultaneously hate yourself for it.

Is it easy to watch? No. Is it fun to watch? No. But does it need to be watched? Absolutely. Every second of it. And it needs to be pondered. And unwrapped. And considered. And discussed to a greater degree than soundbites.