The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films, NR)

The-Act-of-Killing 75You receive a long, strange film that will give you all manner of stuff to think about—good luck shaking this one off anytime soon.

The Act of Killing 500

If you’re like me, you’ve been looking forward to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing for quite some time. That’s the one that’s been a hit on the festival circuit since it premiered at Telluride a year ago, and is a documentary about the Indonesian death squad leaders that, while not only interviewing said leaders themselves (some of whom have purportedly as many as 1,000 murders to their names), actually has footage of them reenacting some of these murders, often in a fair amount of detail. Really, it’s hard to think of a documentary with more compelling subject matter than that. And of course, there’s more than what is on the surface—these Indonesian gangsters (more on that word later) are still in power and protected by the government, and seem to think that American filmmaker Oppenheimer is basically making a propaganda film about how they took down those horrible communists. Oppenheimer clearly has other plans.

The reality of the movie is perhaps even stranger than it sounds. For one thing, it’s slow and contemplative, so if you’re going into it expecting to see real death squad leaders gleefully act out their atrocities, you’re probably going to be in for a surprise. That said, it’s one of those films that, even if you were underwhelmed when you’re watching it, is going to haunt your memory for quite some time; this is nearly always the sign of a great film.

Though Oppenheimer interviews a handful of these death squad leaders (and, of course, victims’ families and other affected folk), he focuses most of his attention on Anwar Congo, who is the man with the aforementioned 1,000 deaths to his name. Congo is an interesting character—he often dresses like a pimp and has the same vibe as Vithaya Pansringarm’s character from Only God Forgives (said vibe is one of pretty severe intimidation, despite not being a large man)—but beneath the surface seems something closer to awareness and regret than you see in most of the other gangsters studied here. (Relatedly, there are more degrees of evil witnessed in these men as individuals than you may have considered before—for example, one gangster wistfully recalls his ability to rape pretty communist women, and particularly favors those who were 14 years old.) The deal is that, in mid-60s Indonesia, the government was overthrown and these men set about exterminating anyone who they thought to be a communist, but as you can imagine this turned into a pretty serious witch hunt in short order.

One of the most puzzling things about this movie is that any of these men expected Oppenheimer to make a positive film about them in the first place. Oppenheimer’s made a pretty substantial name for himself on just this one film alone, as he shows a pretty incredible amount of bravado in doing this in the first place (it had to put him in personal danger, and not for nothing that about half of the names in the credits are “Anonymous”), and even goes so far as to stand up to some of these men on camera, Charles Ferguson style, or to point cameras in their face during their rare moments of weakness. Also, he gets some mileage out of unlikely role playing, such as sometimes having the killers play victims in the recreations, or even in some cases having male killers act as female victims, in full drag.

You get the impression from the opening title cards that Oppenheimer was setting out to expose these men from the outset if only from the language he uses; they’re “gangsters” instead of “revolutionaries,” they committed “murders” as opposed to “fighting,” etc. But then it turns out that this is for the most part the language that the killers themselves use, as they style themselves after Hollywood gangster movies, and this affection they have for that genre of film is presumably why they are so keen to reenact their past actions and also probably work with that American director. But even this link gets confusing, as most of the touchpoints they cite as influence came after the bulk of the atrocities these men committed—they say on-camera that they like the films of Brando and Pacino, which of course implies that they’re big fans of The Godfather, but then of course you realize that A) The Godfather came out years after the Indonesian government was overthrown, and B) Pacino’s first film role wasn’t until 1969, which is also years after these events. So, what’s influencing what here? Another name they drop is John Wayne, which seems odd, but then I guess these men at least think that their murder of over a million people was a patriotic act.

Which is to say that going into The Act of Killing, you may be expecting a film where horrible men flaunt their unpleasantness with much theatricality (and isn’t that what the movies are for?), but in the end you receive a long, strange film that will give you all manner of stuff to think about—good luck shaking this one off anytime soon. | Pete Timmermann

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