The Act Of Killing

The Act Of Killing


Reviewed by: Merlin Harries

Powerful, surreal, frightening and unprecedented are among the apt adjectives used by Werner Herzog to describe Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary, The Act Of Killing. In truth, Oppenheimer's journey into a country’s brutal and murderous past is so much more. It is, in many ways, one of the bravest feats one might hope to accomplish as a filmmaker. Unquestionably and understandably harrowing, in places unbearably so, this reflection upon acts of murder, genocide and torture, told by the perpetrators themselves, is a masterpiece.

The genocide in Indonesia between 1956 and 1966 occurred after President Sukarno's defeat at the hands of General Suharto in a military coup that followed what is now known simply as the 30 September Movement. In total, it is estimated that 500,000 lives were taken during this period, on the grounds of alleged communist proclivities. The dead included vast swathes of the migrant Chinese populace. Of those half a million souls, Anwar Congo is widely believed to have personally murdered around 1,000. He is the centrepiece of Oppenheimer's documentary and, along with his accomplice Adi Zulkadry, regularly celebrates his status as a 'gangster' or 'free man'.

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As part of a regime that was never held to account for its crimes, Congo now lives in relative tranquiility among the right-wing paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasil, which grew out of the very death squads he once led. Oppenheimer offers Congo the opportunity to re-enact some of the inquisitions and executions he was responsible for, with sets and costumes in the style of various cinematic genres. As Congo and his compatriots go about vigorously and callously revisiting the murderous acts of the past, Oppenheimer deftly captures scenes which reveal the true legacy of their deeds.

Throughout The Act Of Killing, it becomes clear that members of Pemuda Pancasil are well aware of and near fully reconciled with their origins in the bloody history of Indonesia. Alongside Congo, Zulkadry readily boasts of brutal acts with equally oblivious nonchalance. In spite of this professed indifference, Oppenheimer succeeds in stealing a flickering glance into the haunting past of these men. Congo, perhaps the most prolific butcher among their number, goes so far as to confess to regular nightmares from his past, something which he desperately seeks to suffocate in a cloud of marijuana.

Without doubt, the most inexorably horrifying scene of the film involves the full scale re-enactment of an attack on a small rural village, where the gangsters merrily and giddily joke of their rape and plunder, as they burned and looted their victims’ homes. This, perhaps more so than any other scene in The Act Of Killing, serves to illustrate the unfathomable depths of the vicious acts they committed. Indeed, the leader of the Pancasila Youth makes clear to his comrades "We shouldn't look brutal... like we want to drink people's blood – that's dangerous… for the image of the organisation". It is as though some aspect of this crude recreation awakens an understanding previously dormant. As one of the number remarks: "I never thought it would look so bad."

The Act Of Killing is lofty in ambition and achieves something few documentaries could even aspire to - something truly original that stretches the filmic medium to its limit. Oppenheimer’s work will likely provoke vociferous criticism alongside the fierce praise it rightly deserves. With only a few cameras and costumes, the director offers a nakedly grotesque glimpse into the heart of darkness that pulses so unashamedly amid Indonesia’s gangster community.

This review is of the 115 minute theatrical cut of the film. A 159 minute director's cut is also being screened at festivals.

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2013
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People responsible for the mass murder of suspeced Communists at the onset of the military regime in 1965 are challenged to restage their actions and question the pride they still take in them.
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Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn

Year: 2012

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Denmark, Norway, UK

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