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Act of Killing, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Blurs the line between film and life in the most interesting way possible."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: "The Act of Killing" opens with a group of dancing girls emerging from a covered bridge shaped like a fish. This may not seem like a particularly apt way to start a film about the criminal and paramilitary gangs who systematically murdered dissidents during and after Indonesia's 1965 military coup, but in this case, the absurd is called for. This is one of the most self-referential, strange documentaries one can imagine, and a rare one that uses that inward gaze to find power rather than express ego.

What director Joshua Oppenheimer does is to have his subjects shoot their own movies about what happened back then, while his behind-the-scenes video captures them speaking about murder, intimidation, and other injustices in plain view. The killers take on various roles behind the camera and in front of it, sometimes portraying themselves, sometimes playing accomplices and victims, while Oppenheimer, co-director Christine Cynn, and their collaborators (many of them anonymous) fill the audience in with details about the country's recent history and present.

The men he works with.. Well, they're a transfixing group of people, if nothing else. Anwar Congo quickly emerges as the central figure; he's a rail-thin, dark-skinned, silver-haloed fellow who dresses like a pimp, cheerfully talks about having been a "movie-theater gangster" who later moved up to torturing and killing the government's enemies, and how he was inspired by a desire to top the violence of Hollywood movies. Herman Koto is like his sidekick, a tubby former paramilitary fighter who winds up cross-dressing when the picture needs a weeping mother and undertakes an ill-advised run for government in the middle of production. The less-flamboyant Adi Zulkadry flies in from where he's been living abroad for many years, and newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik brags about people being tortured in his office. Then there are the more conventional monsters, including a paramilitary group founded by Congo and now led by Safit Parede; gangsters like Congo and public figures like Vice President Jusuf Kalla mingle at their rallies.

The audacity and shamelessness of these people will, hopefully, make the audience's collective jaws drop. The more horrible things they confess to, the stranger and more surreal things become - they'll pose themselves in angelic costumes in pastoral settings and then joyously have blood and scars applied to play their own victims; the men will appear on talk shows to discuss the project, taking great pride in "fighting communism" (any enemies of the state would be scapegoated as communists), and the point is repeatedly brought up that the Indonesian word for gangster is taken from "free man". Congo is obliviously vain even as the idea seems to get around that maybe what they're saying isn't portraying them in the best light.

And then there's the end, which is sort of a brilliant challenge to the audience. There's a pivotal scene that, if this were a conventional narrative, would be the scene that changes everything... But in addition to being a scene in the documentary, it's also a scene in the gangsters' movie. And these are gangsters who openly talked about being influenced by the movies. How to weigh that against this guy's utter lack of artifice throughout the picture? Sure, it looks kind of false opposite, say, Zulkadry (who never expresses remorse but whose tendency to say little may be telling), but it's not picked at. It puts the viewer in a position where one has to decide not so much what happened - that is never in any particular doubt - but just how complex and human these guys can be allowed to be in one's mind. Do we allow them to realize the errors of their ways, or do we believe this apparent change must be cynical? These people have done incredible evil, but their personalities include plenty more, and there's no boundary between truth and fiction here, or between history and myth-making.

It's impossible to tell, and the filmmakers make sure of it. That can often be little more than just trying to show their own cleverness, but this is a knot that may be impossible to unravel. It makes "The Act of Killing" just as much about film and storytelling as it is about atrocities, though without trivializing the latter. That's pretty amazing, making this a film one's unlikely to soon forget.

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originally posted: 05/10/13 11:51:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2012 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 AFI Docs Film Festival For more in the 2013 AFI Docs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/09/12 jellop saw it in tiff. audience was totally absorbed in the film. very dark history 5 stars
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  19-Jul-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 07-Jan-2014


  DVD: 07-Jan-2014

Directed by
  Joshua Oppenheimer

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