add tag

Tags you are adding:

The Act of Killing

What´s the most amazing film you´ve ever seen--if "amazing" includes its archaic definition: "alarming" or "terrifying"? With Joshua Oppenheimer's death squad documentary The Act of Killing, you may have your answer. 

No lesser a head torquer than Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) says he has "not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a is unprecedented in the history of cinema." Herzog shares executive production credits with Errol Morris (The Fog Of War). 

The Act of Killing shoves you on a stomach-clutching journey to Indonesia and the gangster-led mass murderers of the mid-60s. Genocide scholar/filmmaker Oppenheimer rounds up a posse of executioners to reenact their historic gore-fests in the style of the Hollywood westerns and gangster flicks they idolize. The result is a film-within a-film which they direct. Boastful of their achievements, they bang-bang, decapitate and torture in makeup, costumes and props gamely crafted to stroke their vanity (as seen in photo 1).

Spry, charismatic Anwar Congo and his paunchy sidekick Herman Koto top the marquee. Congo reminisces about wearing jeans for killing "to look cool." By turns more John Waters than John Wayne, the shoot includes a candy-hued musical number by a waterfall and a chorus line of showgirls prancing about a colassal fish (as seen in photos 2 - 3). By the time Koto fetches up in fuschia beauty-queen drag, it's plain that the eye-jolting stylization is a distancing trick for the karmically challenged. The razzle-dazzle delivers a giddy Felliniesque dissertation on the aesthetics of violence and on the perils of POV.

Before Sukarno's presidency was overthrown by the military in 1965, Congo and his cronies were small-time thugs whose shady dealings included hawking movie tickets to death squad leaders. Joining forces with General Suharto's army, they helped purge more than a million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. "The Indonesian word for 'gangster' is taken from the English term 'free man,' " as Congo and his fellow vigilantes repeat with gusto. Among the communists' crimes they'd sought to avenge was an assault on Western imperialist entertainment, making Indonesia's year(s) of living dangerously a time of liberating culture, from the delusional perspective of these "free men."

Today Anwar is the venerated grandfather of Indonesia's right-wing Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement that arose from the death squads. The Hitler Youth had little up on Pancasila, whose leaders gleefully vaunt their trackrecord of human rights abuse and corruption. “We were allowed to do it, and the proof is we murdered people and were never punished,” gloats
 Pancasila founder Adi Zulkadry (as seen in photo 4).

With no Nuremberg to reset civilization, Indonesia a half-century after the killings is a place where a young talk show host touts the gangsters' derring-do and where the TV audience loudly applauds.
 Sadder still is a scene -- eerily familiar to global viewers -- capturing the numbed-brain legacy of denial on today's media-intoxicated mall rats.

Small wonder The Act of Killing undid audiences at the 2012 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, and took home an Audience Award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. There's nothing banal about this descent into the banality of evil or the question of whether its perpetrators ultimately got away with murder.

Go ahead, make an evening of it. Just bring earplugs to ride out a particularly revolting scene and lay off the popcorn. 

Photo credits:

Photos 1 - 4: courtesy of Drafthouse Films.