Revelation Perth International Film Festival – The Act of Killing review

The Act of Killing

By Simon Miraudo
July 5, 2013

Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing is, at the very least, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Gruelling, harrowing, and weirdly funny, it follows the real-life Indonesian gangsters who were tasked by militia in the 1960s to execute communists, intellectuals, and the Chinese. Many of these subjects are seemingly untroubled by their actions; save for a few nightmares at night, they are positively tickled by the resourceful manner in which they murdered men, women, and children, recollecting them cheerfully for the unseen cameraman.

Oppenheimer challenges them to translate their experiences in any manner they see fit, and they ultimately write, produce, and star in a movie detailing the genocide. The Act of Killing documents the making of, only sometimes showing us the final product. At times, their feature looks like a particularly bleak film noir, especially when they interrogate dissidents and strangle them to death with wire. Yet, it concludes with a colourful, fantastical musical number. Two of the documentary’s most amusing characters – well, despite their bloody past – Anwar Congo and Herman Koto view some rushes, and note a jump in logic within their narrative. Anwar rationalises, “This scene is set in a time tunnel.” That is now my favourite way to forgive a plot hole. So, like I said, The Act of Killing is funny. Except when it isn’t.

The Act of Killing

Perhaps the best way to describe the experience of watching Oppenheimer’s opus is to describe what happens to Congo after he sees their completed picture, in which he took on the role of one of the tortured communists: he dry-heaves, over and over again. This is filmmaking that gets to your gut well before the brain can process what exactly is going on. And there are certain things the brain wants answers to. How did Oppenheimer gain such access to all these nefarious individuals? Though never glimpsed, he is directly addressed by the subjects, often in a welcoming, jovial manner. He achieves a frightening familiarity with these murderers. The Act of Killing, instead of easing our worries and explaining how everything was achieved, throws us into the lion’s den – surrounded as we are be these cackling hordes of killers – unarmed with factual, historical information or much context at all. The result, as I mentioned, builds dread in the belly.

Oppenheimer – or whoever is operating the camera at any one time – witnesses some remarkable sights, and, by virtue of the picture’s first-person POV, so do we. Gangsters lean on poor shopkeepers, extorting them for cash, with no regard for the lens trained on them. They reminisce about seeing Elvis movies, and then, happening upon their old “offices,” discuss how many they killed there without missing a beat. They refer to these kill floors as their offices because it was their job. They got paid to do it and they did it efficiently. The Act of Killing, at its most cutting, subtly eviscerates all governments implicit in mass murders (not just Indonesia’s openly corrupt one). An executioner justifies his actions thusly: “War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.” It’s the sentiment of an insane person, yet it is also an absolutely accurate account for the way in which the history books are inscribed.

The Act of Killing

This is a tough watch, and not just because the subjects recount in gory detail their evil deeds. It’s also tough because it occasionally inspires sympathy in the gangsters; at least the ones who come to realise the cost of their mass murders. Why let them exorcise their demons? Why not the children of the slain Indonesians? The closing credits list a surely unprecedented number of ‘Anonymous’ collaborators, which only adds to the mystery of this production, and highlights the very real danger that lingers still in that part of the world for those wanting to question the powers that be. The Act of Killing explores the value of art for both the artists and their viewers. We will continue to question the movie’s motives, as well as those of its oddly willing participants. But that is because we will be talking about this movie for a long time. It’s like no other.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

The Act of Killing plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival July 7 and 13, 2013.

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