The Act of Killing (2012)

Review #1,038

Director:  Joshua Oppenheimer
Plot:  A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

Genre:  Documentary / History
Awards:  Won Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and Paronama Audience Award (Berlin).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Documentary
Runtime:  159min (director's cut)
Rating:  NC16 for disturbing themes and images.

“Why did I have to kill them?  I had to kill... My conscience told me they had to be killed.”

This documentary is difficult to watch and write about.  It is also unlike anything I have ever seen.  Winning major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Act of Killing could very well be re-titled as 'The Art of Killing', and it would still have worked. 

It centers on both the act and the art of murder as it were. The subjects are interviewed about the 1965 mass killings of Chinese communists in Indonesia, at the same time re-enacting some of the scenes, including that of torture, which played out at that time.  These subjects are not eyewitnesses, but executioners. 

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and supported majorly by the Danish Film Institute, The Act of Killing is a bold yet unsettling look at history through the memories of the killers.  They have families and lead normal lives.  They walk freely, as if absolved of their guilt.

The Director's Cut runs close to 160 minutes, most of which follow three persons who played leading roles in the massacre.  They reminisce in detail how they executed the communists in brutal, efficient ways, even recreating scenarios for the camera.  More bizarrely, they also film themselves as characters in an anti-communist propaganda movie that they are planning to shoot. 

It is a disturbing documentary in many ways, but powerful enough to keep you interested, though not necessarily riveted.  It probes a very troubling part of Indonesian history not with justice in mind, but to expose hidden truths.  These aren't confessions, but unflinching testimonies of the guilty.  Seemingly nonchalant about the gravity of their crimes, these subjects speak as if they are masters of their own fate.

As viewers, it is essential to judge them.  To kill is to sin, whatever the circumstance.  Politics is never an excuse.  Every frame they are in, we judge their actions.  Yet we are also mindful that by getting in front of the camera, these people are exposing themselves in the name of historical authenticity. 

In this regard, The Act of Killing is not a document of distortion, but one seeking clarity.  It inevitably opens a deep wound of hatred and suffering, but in the process a strange, unexpected, even disturbing sense of catharsis occurs. 

It is a catharsis through art and act, and when they culminate, the wound closes differently.  There is no justice, but at least there is solace in the truth.  Oppenheimer's work is truly one of the most important documentaries of recent times.

Verdict:  Disturbing, powerful and difficult to watch, but it is unlike anything I have ever seen.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

Click here to go back to Central Station.



Popular Posts