THE ACT OF KILLING
> THE ACT OF KILLING was only one among the five truly excellent films up for Best Feature Documentary of 2012. What an impressive list! CUTIE AND THE BOXER, DIRTY WARS, THE SQUARE, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM and the film reviewed here, THE ACT OF KILLING. Seeing theses films as I have, I can say with confidence that we are truly in a Golden Age of documentaries! THE SQUARE is a breathtaking document of the Tahir Square Egyptian uprising. “CUTIE” and “20 FEET” were both wonderful to watch. Each has very enthusiastic proponents. DIRTY WARS was an awesome piece of investigative journalism that really kicked ass! But THE ACT OF KILLING might well be one of the most stunning and memorable documents of the human soul I have ever witnessed. I just wish it painted a prettier picture.
. This unflinching powerhouse of a film is a snapshot of unspeakable brutality, and the repercussions of heinous deeds. 2.5 million denounced “Communists” were tortured and slaughtered in mid-60′s Indonesia, by gangs of mass murdering self-styled gangsters, (or “free men”), who never really faced justice for their crimes against humanity, and worse- are now in positions of power! Joshua Oppenheimer is brave and brilliant documentarian. Knowing he would be unable to make a traditional documentary on the subject that included interviews of these gangsters in high places, he came up with an inspired ruse. Approaching mostly unrepentant monsters, he appealed to their sense of vanity offering them film equipment and the expertise to shoot their own story the way they saw it and wanted it to be told, and the results are just as devastating as they damn well ought to be. The criticism of this film missed the mark. Mr. Oppenheimer had no illusions that he would get anything other than revisionist history, as each man is the hero in his own saga, but in tricking them into reenacting their horrible crimes (unknowingly, in a film-within-a-film), he hoped to shed light on who these people were and are, and what could be going through the mind of a mass murderer. It presented an opening- a crack in the facade that gave them permission to talk about what had been up until then, a totally taboo subject.
. Though there is no actual violence in the film, the reenactments get so emotionally visceral that you feel like you are watching something approaching a snuff film. The actors are so traumatized by the long-suppressed raw emotions these reenactments bring up, that many are reduced to quivering jelly after the murderer/director calls cut. And for me, the most heinous part of the reenactments: some of the actors are children. We watch as these children are gleefully terrorized by ignorant thugs. But there is context: It’s part of the culture. Gangsters are respected and even venerated in chronically corrupt Indonesian society. Children look up to them. During this murderous era, the spell of a truly evil leader, large numbers of Indonesian youth joined a kind of mass gang where under the guise of public service, they were taught extreme nationalism and hatred for their vilified enemies, the less-than-human Commies. (Think: evil, murderous Boy Scouts with machetes!) Adults had made murderers of these children in the first place as part of a cycle of casual violence. Now they were traumatizing a whole new generation.
. At one point, one of the killers reflects on how they used to spread propaganda that the Communists were the evil ones, when in fact, he and his murderous gang had been the evildoers all along. He is eager that the film reflect this new understanding. Everyone nods their head in agreement. In the end, with clear government complicity, the film did quite the opposite, showing the killers in a heroic, patriotic light, which in itself, says a lot.
. It’s all too horrible to comprehend. But is there any possibly of redemption for these fallen men? Anwar Congo, a very charming gangster who estimates that he tortured about 1000 people to death, wonders why his dreams trouble him so… (Now what could that possibly be?) As the film unwinds, the truth and enormity of his actions begin to break through his long-fortified wall of denial. He cannot stop seeing the open eyes of one of his victims, staring him down, accusingly, the wire he was garroted with still around his neck. Mr. Congo is horribly tortured, and my initial sick, shameful reaction was to feel happy about it- actually glad for another person’s suffering. It seemed, if anyone on the planet deserved to suffer, it was Anwar Congo. Why haven’t these men been brought up for charges in World Court? One of these assholes taunts the world, and arrogantly dares it to bring him to justice in The Hague. Is there any possibility for forgiveness for these men? I don’t think so. Certainly not as long as they cling to denial and defy justice.
. Morgan Spurlock might well want to rethink HOOP DREAMS at the top of his list of “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die”. I’m grateful to Warner Herzog and Erroll Morris for producing this revelation of a film. Even though it is very tough to watch, you might just want to see this amazing and even shockingly beautiful (!!!) film. The opening shot, and parts of the film-within-the-film, are wondrous delights to behold! (Think Terry Gilliam mashed up with Tarsem Singh served with a touch of Michel Gondry on the side.) I absolutely gasped in utter delight. How’s that for cognitive dissonance, coming from a horrific, hellish film?!
> I think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences truly missed the boat when they passed this film over in favor of the easy, populist choice of 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. This Best Documentary winner was a fun and feel good film with great music and awesome talent, but THE ACT OF KILLING was an important, thoughtful, moving, provocative, heartbreaking, enlightening film that is truly in a class of its own.
. I hope you see it! I want to hear what you think…
(For more context, read this:)
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