Review: The Act of Killing (2013)

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Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn
Runtime: 115 min // Certificate: 15


“Truth is stranger than fiction”, as the old adage goes. It’s the mantra from which all the greatest documentaries blossom, yet nowhere is it more true than in The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s simultaneously fascinating and harrowing BAFTA-winning film about the legacy and aftermath of the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. With its Herzogian approach to its horrific subject matter, its unique style and a decision on the part of Oppenheimer to take as neutral / distant a stance as possible (at least in the confines of the film itself), this is without question one of the best documentaries of the last 20 years, if not of all time.

Filmed in the style of a “meta-documentary”, or perhaps even a “truthful docudrama”, Oppenheimer’s film follows a number of once major figures in the regime, the majority of who are very open about the gruesome part they played in the now infamous anti-Communist purges. Asked to stage / re-enact some of the killings in whichever manner they see fit, these men – who refer to themselves as “gangsters”, as though this is a positive label – demonstrate unrepentant honesty in an attempt to tell their side of the story. These men are proud, in part thanks to the continual hero-worship awarded to them by a Government and population that continues to hold them in high-esteem, yet equally they are deeply confused and conflicted; every action they recreate is sugar-coated, in some perverse attempt at retrospective validation, while as the film progresses some of them begin to question whether what they did can ever be truly justified.

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Now, it’s rare for a film – least of all a documentary with an obvious agenda – to leave me quite so flabbergasted, yet The Act of Killing didn’t just stun me, it also left me feeling unclean, almost as though I was complicit in the devastation because of my near-ignorance about it. Oppenheimer picks a subject matter that most people will likely only know in passing, as I did, and does his damnedest to ensure that not only will you learn about it, you’ll also never forget it. The images of some of these men laughing and messing around as they reconstruct vicious executions for the cameras engrain themselves in your mind like an awful repressed memory, yet no matter how brutal, how unrepentant and how hateful these men are, it’s all but impossible to turn away.

The catch here is their honesty, which is at once addictive, repellent and captivating. They don’t beat about the bush, they show – with a few notable exceptions, which I’ll come to in a moment – no remorse and they’re happy to take part because, in a display of astonishing egotism, they believe that they’re offering a positive spin on what happened all those years ago. Oppenheimer, for the most part, keeps silent and allows the “gangsters” to talk amongst themselves, to the camera and to the residents of Indonesia, who seem terrified of yet utterly devoted to them. More a “character study” than a thorough account of the anti-Communist purges, The Act of Killing shows us what happens when violence and paranoia are allowed to take control of a nation through the eyes, thoughts and actions of a few terrifying and devastatingly deluded men.

Yet scratch beneath the surface of both the Indonesian façade of praise for the paramilitary organisation – which is one built on fear, coercion and fraud – and the men whom Oppenheimer chooses to focus on and you find a bunch of people who just don’t seem to know what they think anymore. At one point, one of them declares “we can make a movie more sadistic than movies about the Nazis” with a sense of genuine pride, while another talks of the time he, before raping a bunch of 14-year olds, informed them “it’ll be Hell for you but Heaven on Earth for me”, and then proceeds to guffaw uproariously. At face value, in the mind of any decent person, these men are – if such a concept exists – evil, yet something about what they say and do feels false, as though it has been scripted and rehearsed in their minds over the course of many years.

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It is in this contradiction between truth and “truth” that the film is so intensely fascinating. You can never quite tell whether the men are remembering things as they happened or as they wish them to have happened, yet as the film rumbles along you get the impression that a couple of them are beginning to see their actions in a new light. The constant attempts to excuse actions that they claim to take pride in suggests a level of false memory – or perhaps even lying – on the part of the men, yet one never gets the impression that these are purposeful falsehoods. The process of re-enacting such violence sparks in them a number of different reactions; some are gleeful, some are wary and some seem to be somewhat horrified, yet not once do you get the impression that they truly know or understand their own feelings. Therefore, as reprehensible as their actions were, one can’t help but be engrossed in their stories, not least because Oppenheimer manages to get them to be so astonishingly open about the entire affair.

The Act of Killing is the apex of documentary making and storytelling. It’s an extraordinarily candid film that is far from an easy watch, and anyone of a nervous disposition might do well to stay as far away from it as possible, but if you’re interested in what it is that can drive men to be so evil, so committed to a cause and so unremorseful about their actions, you simply have to give this film a go. It won’t teach you all that much about the anti-Communist purges as a political / historical event, but it will take you deep into the hearts and minds of a bunch of men involved in a regime whose crimes have gone unpunished because, in the eyes of its successors, they have done no wrong. Oppenheimer’s approach to his subjects is unique, his determination to get answers is unrivalled and his documentary stands tall as one of the greatest explorations of human savagery I’ve ever seen.

And now I need to lie down in a dark room and surround myself with ice cream and teddies for about a month…