The title of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is, to all intents and purposes, a pun; a nugget of wordplay intended to signify the film’s self-reflexive nature. But if you go into this film looking for laughs, you’ve come to the wrong place. Part-documentary, part-journey into the psychology of terror, it’s a positively harrowing and upsetting experience, and perhaps as close to pure evil as you’re ever likely to be in a cinema.
A bit of context: when the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, a group of small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market were promoted to the role of ruthless death squad leaders. With the power of law on their side and the edict to destroy, they helped the army to kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year.
Oppenheimer’s film picks up with members of the death squad in the present day as they shoot the breeze, and go about their daily business (which mostly seems to consist of intimidating local shopkeepers and attending right-wing paramilitary meetings). The twist is that they’ve also been asked to retell their experiences by making their own films in all kinds of generic styles. It’s a task they carry out with brash relish, and watching these violent reconstructions (often involving their families and the local community) is a genuinely chilling experience.
Only one figure - the elderly Anwar Congo, revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organisation that grew out of the death squads - shows any sign of a moral arc throughout, and it’s his story who provides the film’s narrative backbone.
The only thing that matches Oppenheimer’s film for visceral power is its intelligence. It forces us to question the colonising role that popular culture has on the collective consciousness. It won’t be music to the ears of those keen to deny any link between violent movies and real-life violence, but here, in grotesque, garish colour, is living proof. Even more troublingly, it asks us to confront traditional modes of history, where contrition for atrocities committed is normally the default setting. The film’s press release describes it as a tale about “killers who have won”; these guys don’t feel that they need to apologise - and why would they when the legitimised corruption - and sense of banally evil victory - in their province is so complete?
Nightmarishly surreal, endlessly thought-provoking and profoundly disturbing, The Act of Killing is a stunning piece of work which pushes documentary filmmaking into challenging new territory. It might not be a film you’ll be in a hurry to watch again when you’ve staggered blinking out of the theatre, but you’ll have no choice; it’ll be replaying in your head for hours, if not days.
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