The Act Of Killing Reviews
There are some incredibly absurd moments in the reenactments of various fifty-year-old murders, including one of the henchmen dressing up in drag for no discernible reason. But the heart of this documentary is compelling the film's primary subject to face his own flagging, ignored conscience. It takes a while, and there are blithe pronouncements about death and killing that make one's stomach turn, but the film eventually pays off.
Overall, the gimmick of the film, the reenactments, seems a little weird, but the premise is still compelling.
Basically, it is about gangsters, who were employed by the Indonesia government following the 1965 military coup to kill its enemies, recreating their crimes for their camera. In the present day, these killers are not only allowed to go around free but also treated as heroes by the government. Those same killers say they got their inspiration from Hollywood films which even if you could name a John Wayne movie where he killed lots of people with wire I would still not agree with this.
All of which you can imagine is equal parts creepy and chilling of course with the filmmakers sticking around just long enough to get what they want before hopefully dropping off a copy of the DVD to the International Criminal Court, or failing that, a Spanish judge. And mind the freshman philosophy but just because something is legal does not make it morally right and vice versa. Oh, and sadism is cruelty but only if you truly enjoy your work.
With its shock factor intact, what "The Act of Killing" is truly lacking is any kind of outside perspective. I'm not arguing for any kind of talking heads, but if the filmmakers could have talked to any of the victims' families, that would have been great. Heck, even any person on the street interviews would have been good, to give the viewer any kind of independent opinion on the killers outside of their shaky mental state. Also not mentioned is Indonesia's murderous occupation of East Timor which might have also been perpetrated by the same paramilitary organization featured in the documentary.
Anwar Congo was a low-level gangster who operated as a ticket-scalp for cinemas in the country's capital, Jakarta. When the communists campaigned for a ban on American films, he willingly took up the anti-communist cause, killing over a thousand people, mostly by strangling them with a wire. "It was wrong, but we had to do it" he tells us, expressing no remorse for his actions. Today, with the country essentially run by paramilitary groups, Anwar is considered a hero to many in Indonesia.
To delve into the nature of Anwar and his fellow killers, film-maker Oppenheimer tasked them with re-enacting their atrocities for a low-budget film. Obsessed with American films, Anwar and company take to the task with relish, reworking their unpunished crimes as homages to classic Hollywood musicals, gangster films and westerns.
"You've never seen a film like this" is an overused piece of hyperbole but in the case of 'The Act of Killing' it holds up. There isn't a moment of this film where your mouth won't be left agape. Watching Anwar and friends hang out and relate their stories is a surreal experience. The tales we hear are as horrific as they come. One elderly man tells us how he walked the length of a street, slaughtering every ethnic Chinese person he encountered with a machete, be they man, woman or child. At the end of the street he encountered his Chinese girlfriend's father and beat him to death with a brick. The brutality of the anecdote is offset by the car its narrator is driving, a banana yellow vehicle you might expect to see in 'The Wacky Races'. The film is full of such contradictions. One gangster, the jovial Herman, is seen joking around in a drag costume in some scenes, intimidating terrified shopkeepers in others.
If you ever needed proof that evil doesn't exist, Oppenheimer's film provides plenty. These mass-murderers are wholly charismatic and at times you find yourself cracking up with laughter at their antics. We see Congo's relationship with his grandsons and he comes across nothing more than a kindly old man, showing affection in one tender moment for an injured duck. Every time you grow to like these guys, however, they bring you back to your senses with another twisted anecdote of rape and torture.
How could seemingly normal family men like this slaughter thousands with their own hands? The impression given is that a lack of education is mainly responsible; their lack of empathy seems to come from pure ignorance. These men simply don't understand the immorality of their actions. The movie's most shocking moment comes as Anwar expresses discomfort in watching a fake torture scene he filmed earlier. "Did the people I really did this to feel as bad as I do now?" he asks without irony. "Ignorance is bliss", they say. It can also be barbaric.
Documentaries that actually chronicle a true change in people or events is very rare. Most often these films involve a particular person talking about a past change not seen on camera and where they have gone since. But "The Act Of Killing" literally captures an awakening on camera, portraying the sudden realization that Congo has done committed inhumane and horrific acts. It comes as no surprise that expert documentarian Werner Herzog is behind this film as an executive producer, as it has the flair and feel of a Herzog documentary. Films like "The Act Of Killing" happen once in a lifetime. How often are you going to see a former death squad leader realize the horrors of his past crimes in such a natural and thought-provoking way? How "The Act Of Killing" got beat at the Academy Award by a sit-down interview with former back-up singers ("20 Feet From Stardom") is laughable, as it pales in comparison to the depth and dark nature of this unforgettable film.
But on a macro level the film really shows how scary Indonesia is, a political party, Pemuda Pancasila, is truly boastful about the genocide, and are more than open about current corruption. Why wouldn't they be, the Vice President is a member, governors advocate killing Chinese neo communists, the mass murders are the hero's. A leader of a news paper speaks openly about how he changed statements of alleged communists to get them killed. Of course I always knew corruption is prevalent in developing regions, but i didn't realize this was something to be cocky about.
The recreations are frantically heartfelt, but have a sound surrealism. The colorful pictures make depictions of genocide and death, beautiful. I took great joy seeing the director momentarily breaking his silence at the end, it was honorable of him to make the film, and he kept a great balance of not intervening and putting in a word. During the credits half the names are just, Anonymous, even though the gangsters and media took pride in the genocidal heritage, perhaps the end result is something to fear for Indonesian culture. I will try to watch the extended 160 minute version eventually, but for now this has affected beyond any standard documentary.
"The Act of Killing" shows what is today a taboo topic in Indonesia: communist-cleansing in the 1960s. Despite being a democracy, there are still a lot of discrepancies in today's Indonesian history textbooks regarding who were the actual evil of those days: the PKI (Communist Party) members or the rest of the Indonesian people? This movie shows who the real assholes were/are.
The reason I give this docu 2.5 stars is because it lacks survivors' or victim families' testimonies on THEIR side of the story. I know that they are probably too afraid to come forward to speak in front of camera, but still, the crew could have obscured their face and gave them pseudonyms.