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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Act of Killing

Somewhere in the middle of "The Act of Killing," we see Anwar Congo, an elderly man with a penchant for dancing and telling stories, sitting on the grass with his grandchildren, teaching them why it's wrong to harm baby ducks and how important it is to treat animals gently.

In a movie depicting the massacre of millions of innocent people, simple and quiet exchanges like this one are actually the scenes that make "The Act of Killing" so shocking. When the credits rolled on this movie, I sat in the dark feeling completely stunned. The movie isn't particularly graphic, and it actually made me laugh repeatedly. But it is, by far, the most disturbing film I've seen in years. 

The documentary directed by by Joshua Oppenheimer and produced by Werner Herzog tells multiple stories, much like Russian dolls. The story blanketing all of the plots is a historical one, highlighting the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966, where a failed coup to remove Indonesian President Kusno Sukarno from power was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. Military leaders responded by launching a coup of their own, removing Sukarno from power for being too sympathetic to communists and engaging a war to "exterminate" all communists living in Indonesia. The exact number of people killed is unknown, but is estimated to be between 500,000 and 2 million.  But, as history is written by the victors, these atrocities mostly go unrecognized in Indonesia, and some characters still boast about their involvement in the slayings, holding a rock star status for what they've done. 

The next story layer is actually a movie-within-a-movie; Oppenheimer contacts several of the "gangsters" who worked with the military to carry out the executions and asks them if they'd be interested in re-enacting the murders to create a historical retelling. The gangsters get to execute a film of their own vision (complete with musical numbers, comedy and drag queens), and struggle to depict a movie that both tells the truth about the incident and paints themselves in a positive light. Some openly suggest that the truth must be distorted for the film to be successful. 

At the heart of the film we have Anwar Congo, a man personally responsible for at least 1,000 murders in the 1965-66 killings. Congo, who essentially serves as the film's protagonist, is what makes this movie so difficult to digest. He's a charming man, a grandfather who admits to being haunted by his dreams, but simultaneously casually describes the methods he used for strangling or decapitating his victims. Throughout the film I felt myself vacillating constantly, finding Congo both likable and horrifying at once. As haunting and grotesque as his vivid descriptions of the killing are, it's even more disturbing to see Congo interacting with his grandchildren and behaving like a kind old man. 

Because the film focuses on Congo and other gangsters as they attempt to create their movie, it does step away from giving much information about the historical context or current political climate surrounding these killings. I'd have appreciated more information on that level, and would have gladly traded some of the time spent on the gangsters creating their movie sets, but the character aspects are handled well enough to forgive that small misstep. 

The Act of Killing is challenging and thought-provoking, and is likely to be a movie that stays with you for years, whether you enjoy it or not. Release in the U.S. is currently limited, but this is worth checking out either at a theater or when it inevitably pops up on streaming services and DVD. 

I give it an A. 
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