The Act of Killing: Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen Before

It doesn’t take long for The Act of Killing, the astonishing new documentary from Joshua Oppenheimer, to blow you away. In the opening moments, we learn the raw statistics from an anti-communist genocide perpetrated by the Indonesian government in the mid-1960s. We also learn that these murders are celebrated openly to this day, though it doesn’t quite hit us until we meet our main subjects, Anwar and Herman. Once we meet these men, gangsters who by themselves killed thousands of people, our expectations are immediately defied. These aren’t the one-note villains from Western cinema, nor are these the lunatics we see publicly tried in high-profile murder cases. These men are proud, charming, feared… but well-liked. They have no reason to be ashamed of their actions; they wear their genocidal ways as a badge of honor. Early, Anwar explains how he found a more effective way of killing while simultaneously doing a cha-cha. This sets the tone for The Act of Killing: part psychological horror, part Curb Your Genocidal Enthusiasm. It’s startlingly funny throughout, yet full of raw torturous moments you’re unlikely to shake. Instead of making a dry talking-heads documentary, Oppenheimer has made a character study, which cuts to the quick that much more efficiently. You’ve never seen anything like it, which means you must see it as soon as you can.

Oppenheimer follows Anwar and Herman as they attempt to complete a simple task: they are to make a film, like the Western gangster films which inspired them, that will replicate their genocide and preserve it in an artful manner for the annals of history. An early scene shows Anwar, asking around if women will come play the roles of communist victims. They are all hesitant, and Herman blithely informs Anwar that they’re too scared because many had family members murdered in the purge… so if they want actresses, they should try another town. Herman showcases for women and children the type of acting they want, comically screaming and falling to the ground, as children laugh at his zany behavior. Herman is an outstandingly funny individual, often dressed in women’s clothing throughout the film in multiple scenes, and moments like this encapsulate the film’s impact nicely. You laugh, charmed by this goofball… until you remember that his murder count goes to four digits and he’s doing a wacky riff on actual murders he’s committed. Similarly, a great scene shows Anwar and other soldiers grumbling about how a man in the room claims to have murdered thousands of people but didn’t actually live up to his own hype. When the man comes over and says hello, they pretend they weren’t just talking about him– a classic sitcom moment, executed by executioners.

There’s plenty of pitch-black laughter to be had. A stone-faced serial murderer sitting in a mall while his daughter contentedly takes selfie after selfie had me rolling in the aisles, and a cheery daytime talk show segment celebrating the murders is astounding because it’s inexplicably real (in a fiction film, this would’ve be decried as too on-the-nose). However, some of the laughs come from a place of rich thought provocation. While shooting their film-within-a-doc, Anwar is asked to play the victim and is faux-murdered in the same efficient way he boasted about earlier. He gets very rattled and asks them not to do any more takes. Later, when watching back, he stresses how he felt the exact same way the victims felt. Oppenheimer, forever pushing his good will in this film, points out that he didn’t, as he knew it was a movie, and they knew they were going to die. Anwar takes a moment, then insists, “I really felt it.” I laughed, but a different type of laugh: it came from a place of outrage. Not that I doubt these characters’ sincerity– precisely the opposite. Their sincerity is what earns my guffaws of disbelief.

It’s not all laughs, as one would expect. Sometimes laughter turns to horror in the blink of an eye. They replicate the burning of a village, and we cut from murderers giving instructions to actors on how to be murdered… to a murderer insisting the youngest women are the best to rape, to much merry agreement from his cohorts. We cut from a government official, stumbling over his words to insist that the depiction of the village destruction seem less savage… to some of the women and children actors, still uncontrollably weeping at what they’ve just recreated. A man who just re-enacted slaughtering a child’s family tries to console that child to no avail, and we see the frustration on his face. He plays it to the camera like a frustrated sitcom dad, as we in the audience read very clearly between the lines. It’s also horrific and immensely compelling to watch Anwar slowly peels layers of himself away. His braggadocio is a defense mechanism, and every once in a while, he lets his guard down. In his final scene, he takes Oppenheimer to the place where he personally murdered thousands, and his reaction is wildly unexpected, to say the least. It’s a haunting, terrifying moment.

Most terrifying of all: we see these men not as monsters, but as human beings. Oppenheimer takes great pains to get us into these men’s lives and minds, so that it’s not merely an act of dismissal or judgment. He doesn’t want us to leave The Act of Killing thinking about what heartless bastards these men are/were; he wants us to think about how these men got this way. In one scene, he provokes one of the murderers (the balls on this guy) by telling him that the Geneva Convention would call his actions war crimes. The murderer goes off on a rant: how can what he did be war crimes? They won! War crimes are defined by the winners! No one insists the Americans stand trial for the slaughter of Native Americans. No one insists Bush stand trial for torture and murder at Guantanamo Bay. Americans are winners, thus they never get charged with wrongdoing by the world at large… Indonesia, he proposes, is the same. Only the losers must suffer the fallout of morally questionable behavior. If Nazism had won, would the Holocaust be viewed as it is today, or would it be seen as a great success? This point has stuck with me since leaving the theater.

The Act of Killing paints a picture of a world in which every single one of us is capable of the exact same atrocities as Anwar, Herman, and their gang. Moral high ground is determined by those in charge, and any reason for murder can be justified without consequence as long as power continues to be held. The fact that the documentary is so goddamn funny only drives its point home further. At film’s end, Anwar and Herman stage a big musical number for their film, set to the song “Born Free,” and a Communist with a wire wrapped around its neck sincerely thanks Anwar for ending his life and sending him to heaven. Oppenheimer didn’t stage this to be some sort of sick broad method of theme delivery; Anwar and Herman staged it, and they don’t see any irony in this celebration whatsoever. The toll murder takes on a murderer’s soul is locked deeply away; in real life, these murderers continue to drink beer, crack jokes, love their families, have a firm set of beliefs, and live their banal lives just like you and me. This world’s monsters are never one-dimensional; the real monsters are utterly human, more like you than you ever thought possible. The Act of Killing showcases that in a terrifying, hilarious, and indispensable manner.

P.S. Watch the credits for a gut-punch of reality. Just in case you weren’t sure what was at stake in this documentary, the end credits should hammer the point home.

~ by russellhainline on September 6, 2013.

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