Movie Review: The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Reviewed: 16 February 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ****
The Act of Killing is Joshua Oppenheimer's astonishing interpretive documentary featuring killers in Indonesia revisiting the scenes of past crimes, narrating their own crimes, and, most shockingly, reenacting them with extras and camera crews in tow. History as we are often told is written by the victors, and the ruling power expeditiously uses its power to anoint its heroes and demonize its villains. Yet as Shakespeare wrote in the great tragedy Macbeth over five hundred years ago, "What's done cannot be undone." Yet, what does it mean when those who committed atrocities are lionized by the ruling powers? What place can guilt have in a consequence-free totalitarian state?
Anwar Congo, now an aging, grandfatherly figure, shuffles around with a banality that belies his untold sins; a soldier in the anti-communist forces in Indonesia, Anwar speculates having committed over a thousand murders himself. A self-titled gangster, Anwar cites Hollywood films such as The Godfather as influences for his actions, and his meticulousness in recreating past crimes is extraordinary. Oppenheimer asks him to act out moments of violence from his past, and Anwar gladly does so. Herman Koto is another former soldier, eager to don make-up and outlandish costumes to go into colorful dreamscapes connected to his past crimes. Another man seems like the prototypical dad with his children at the mall, but is now a part of the power structure in Indonesia and assured of all that he did to get there.
The film's unflinching look at genocide also stares into the dark abyss of power. I knew nothing of these atrocities in Indonesia, and I knew nothing of the current government's endorsing of these atrocities. It is impossible not to think of other genocides and the notion of history while watching this film. A recreated battle scene is especially terrifying as young children are employed as actors and are overcome with emotion by the dramatic power of the recreation. For a movie that includes a lot of older people sitting around and talking, The Act of Killing is audacious in its use of art to reinterpret the crimes of the past. Oppenheimer has crafted a film that is undeniably powerful and upsetting, and it is unlike anything I have ever seen before and probably ever will. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris serve as producers, and the conceit of this film makes it remarkable.
The Act of Killing should win Best Documentary Film on Sunday at the Academy Awards, and it has lingered in my mind for over a month after viewing because it is simply unshakable once it has been experienced. I think it is a film that a college professor would use in a syllabus on 20th Century World History, and anyone interested in the intersection of memory, guilt, power, and ruthlessness should see this important and disturbing film.