“The Act of Killing” is the best and most unique documentary to grace U.S. screens in years, probably since “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003. It’s horrifying, riveting, and even, at times, darkly funny.
Directed by American/British documentarian Josh Oppenheimer- and assisted by a crew whose names are mostly listed in the credits as “Anonymous”- “The Act of Killing” has a structure that’s almost impossible to believe: Oppenheimer goes to Indonesia and, over a six-year period, interviews several men who were key participants in the death squad-led genocides in Indonesia in the 1960s.
Not only do these men reminisce about the killings as though they were old-time baseball players talking about their playing days, but they decide that they’d like to produce a movie, with themselves in all the leading roles, re-enacting their crimes. It makes sense to them, since they were always inspired by old Hollywood movies, in how they dressed, carried themselves, and even in their methods of murder. Oppenheimer’s film is at times a character study of these men, and at other times a sort of “making of” documentary of the movie-within-the-movie.
Third-world dictators being inspired by the movies is nothing new; Ali Nasser Mohammed al-Hassani, president of South Yemen in the 1980s, was reportedly inspired by “The Godfather” to gather all of his enemies in a room and slaughter them- before he was later, of course, whacked himself. But never before have we seen perpetrators of war crimes not only cheerfully confess their crimes on camera, but decide to make their own movie about it.
The great documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are listed as executive producers, and the influence of both is clear.
We’re introduced to some amazingly fascinating characters like Anwar Congo, a local gangster-turned-death squad leader retained by the ruling military junta to carry out massacres, a man responsible for at least 1,000 murders. Now in his 70s, he’s probably the one person involved who feels even a pang of guilt about his crimes. In one scene in the movie-within-the-movie, he’s visited by a “demon” who’s made up like a long-lost member of KISS.
The other major subject is Herman Koto, Congo’s protege, an obese gangster with aspirations to political office, who seems to really, really enjoy playing the drag parts in the movie- we keep seeing him dressed as a showgirl or geisha in scenes in which it wouldn’t appear such a woman would belong. Also on hand is Adi Zulkadry, Congo’s former running partner who looks like a Fred Armisen character.
This is all extremely dark and horrifying, of course, and it repeatedly brings to mind Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil.” But for a movie about mass murder and other war crimes, “The Act of Killing” has a surprising amount of dark humor.
We see the killers on a televised talk show in which the cheerful female moderator introduces one of her guests as “the star and perpetrator,” before they go into graphic tales of murder and mayhem, and the studio audience laughs in unison at every utterance, as if they were watching a Jay Leno monologue.
Another highlight is when a current government minister leads a crowd in a five-minute chant of “Kill the Communists,” in which they all one-up themselves with more and more violent descriptions of what they’d like to do to their enemies. Afterward, the minister confesses on camera that what just transpired looks kind of bad, and he regrets having it done it that way. But then he clarifies that yes, he certainly would like to kill all the communists, just, you know, in a humane way. It’s absolutely brutal and revolting, but you can’t help but laugh.
Meanwhile, one point one of the killers compares himself favorably to George W. Bush and Guantanamo- something which, I’m afraid, foreign despots are going to be doing for the next several decades.
I’ve never seen a movie quite like “The Act of Killing,” and I was completely blown away in a way I haven’t been by a documentary in quite some time.
That said, I’m completely prepared for it to lose the Best Documentary Oscar, if it’s even nominated. I’m sure it’ll lose out to some simplistic, feel-good liberal message movie, probably directed by Alex Gibney. Whoever wins, chances are it won’t be a director who put himself in the line of retaliation by documentary subjects who have thousands of murders to their name.