Movie Review: The Act of Killing

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the-act-of-killingThe Act of Killing is a shock doc that demands a lot of thought — perhaps more thought than it deserves, and perhaps more thought than many viewers might be willing to give to a film, even to one that deals with the very serious subject of the state-sanctioned murder of a million people in Indonesia during 1965-67 genocide.

That the Indonesian genocide — the “purging of Communists,” as it was called — warrants ongoing concern is made patently clear in the film, which shows that the perpetrators of that massive evil have never met with any comeuppance, and are still ruling Indonesia today.

How that can have come to be is a relevant question that comes immediately to mind, but its one that The Act of Killing neither answers nor, for that matter, explores.

This film isn’t a study about the genocide. It does not report on or investigate any incidents, nor does it focus on facts. Instead, it frames its subject in a circuitous, impressionistic way, as a sort of surreal fantasy. As a filmmaker’s conceit.

The Filmmaker’s Conceit

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia, found several of the top gangsters who lead death squads during the genocide and proposed that they reenact the murders they committed in a Hollywood-style gangster film. They would have free hand to create the film, while Oppenheimer would document their filmmaking process. And that, in a nutshell, is what The Act of Killing is about.

As presented within Oppenheimer’s documentary, the Hollywood-style gangster film that the thugs come up with is a grotesque and inconsequential parody of their own atrocious slaughter of hundreds of people. The thugs in charge of making and acting in the film are not talented people, so cinema craftsmanship is severely lacking. The film-within-the-film’s script includes inexplicable and ridiculously inappropriate musical numbers. Worse than that, ‘tho, is the fact that the way in which the thugs choose to tell their story ignores the agonies of their victims and shows their complete lack of remorse for their merciless brutality.

That, I suppose, is supposed to be the point of Oppenheimer’s documentary. At least that’s what Oppenheimer’s comments in published interviews would lead one to believe, and that’s the point being touted by documentary luminaries Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who’ve jumped on The Act of Killing‘s bandwagon, becoming the film’s executive producers to support Oppenheimer’s vision and achievement.

What is Oppenheimer’s Vision?

Press notes, festival jurors and critics who’ve praised the film present a lot of background information in their comments, using it to explain and justify Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceit. For example, they explain that Oppenheimer’s original approach to making a documentary about the genocide in Indonesia had to be set aside because it couldn’t be accomplished under conditions imposed by the current regime — which is essentially the same regime that was in power during the genocide, and has been in power ever since. Oppenheimer was prohibited from interviewing genocide survivors or the kin of those who were killed. He was even jailed for attempting to do so. And so he moved on to interviewing the perpetrators of evil, the thugs who’ve never been held accountable, never punished, never made to apologize for their murderous deeds.

To make his film, Oppenheimer became the clever trickster, the documentarian who manipulated the gangsters to reveal their inner selves in such a way that they are seen to be absolutely and scandalously revolting. He succeeded. We understand that within the first fifteen minutes of the film. And we see it again and again during the ensuing 100 minutes more. And after all that, we come to the conclusion that the thugs are sociopaths — which we knew going into the film.

But what about the victims? We never meet them. They exist only as abstractions — from the point of view of their killers. That’s an emotional disconnect that seems downright dangerous in a film about genocide.

Background Information As An Interpretive Guide

The filmmaker was, according to notes providing background information, appalled by the thugs’ lack of self-awareness and remorse. They boasted about their evil deeds, taking him to the places where they murdered their victims. And, because he wasn’t able to do a film about the genocide per se, Oppenheimer came up with the conceit of documenting these boasting perps to show just how dreadfully inhuman they — and leaders of Indonesia — were and are.
But all of this background information isn’t actually in the film. And, without knowledge of how the conceit came to be, the documentary fails to become the serious indictment that it is perhaps intended to be.

It is instead a sleazy, garish, confusing and obscene treatment of genocide. A sensational misrepresentation.

Genocide is Obscene.

This representation of genocide — from the perpetrators skewed and heinous point of view — has no connection to and gives no suggestion of the agony suffered by the Indonesian people. The film — as well as the characters it follows — shows a horrifying lack of regard for that suffering. It is, put simply, disrespectful.

Other Films About Genocide

There are other genocide documentaries in which filmmakers have laid their lives on the line to tell stories that accurately impart what happened to the victims. In Enemies of the People, for example, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath teams up with a documentary filmmaker Rob Lemkin to tell how he tracked down, got to know and interviewed the man who was responsible for the slaughter of his family. It is a harrowing film that focuses on the perpetrator of evil, and yet never fails to honor the victims. Quite the contrast to The Act of Killing.
As another example, for My Neighbor, My Killer, filmmaker Anne Aghion spent more than a decade in Rwanda, following the Gacaca-mandated reconciliations between surviving Tsutis and Hutu killers. It is a quiet and penetrating film that respects the victim’s feelings, while showing the need to move on.

Granted that these films deal with different post-genocide political and social conditions. But these situations, too, are tenuous. Yet the filmmakers, neither of whom takes a particularly orthodox approach to dovumentary storytelling, found realistic and respectful ways to reflect upon what happened during and as a result of genocide.

For a documentary that reveals the gut of the genocide in Indonesia, take a look at 40 Years of Silence, now streaming free of charge on Vimeo.

Critical Accord

Many if not most critics disagree with me about The Act of Killing. I think those who praise the film are bamboozled by Oppenheimer’s unorthodox approach which they deem to be daring, and find some sort of perverse gratification in the film’s sensationalism. In documentaries, it’s hip these days to be cutting edge, and this film is certainly that. But I think it’s a degradation.

And I know of at least one highly respected colleague whose qualms match my own.

During a post-screening conversation I had with BBC Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser, he commented. “It’s as though a documentary filmmaker went down to Argentina, found some ex-Nazis and gave them some money to make a film about how much fun they’d had killing Jews during the Holocaust. Everyone would be horrified. But in this case, it’s about Indonesia. People don’t know as much about it, so they don’t take exception in the same way.” Insightful and pithy, as always, Fraser’s take on the film and the general response to it just about sums up my own.

It’s quite likely that most people don’t know all the horrific details about the genocide in Indonesia. They probably won’t be much better informed after seeing this film. But at least they will know that it happened. And their knowledge that humans are capable of inhuman behavior will be confirmed. Again.

Film Details:

Title: The Act of Killing
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer
Release Date: July 19, 2013 (limited)
Running Time: 115 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Country: Indonesia
Language: Indonesian, with English subtitles
Production Company: Final Cut For Real
Distributor: Drafthouse Films

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