The Act of Killing

August 11, 2013 No Comments


The Detroit Film Theater was filled with an eerie  silence during the screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film:  The Act of Killing.

To call this film “remarkable” or “riveting”  or “disturbing”  fails to capture the experience of the movie and CERTAINLY of the subject matter itself.  Oppenheimer has spent a decade exploring the 1965  military coup in Indonesia which culminated in deaths of over one million people. Oppenheimer tells the story of these events through the accounts of  the perpetrators, small-time thugs elevated to the role of death squad leaders.  We meet individual murderers, such as Anwars Congo, who at times reenacts the murders  for Oppenheimer with Hollywood swagger,  dressing in costume and dancing the cha-cha.   The film does not glorify its henchmen (or does it at times?), who, with few exceptions, recount their deeds with verve  and impunity.

The film is difficult to watch for the same reasons that make it an absolute “must see.”  Oppenheimer avoids any historical footage of the murders, relying on the film’s plentiful dialogue and the re-enactments performed by the actual perpetrators, which creates much of the eerie feeling so prevalent during the film.  It should be noted (and my complete ignorance of current Indonesian politics was painfully apparent) that these men remain free, unprosecuted and unrepentant in a nation that appears currently relieved at cleansing of communist citizens and ethnic Chinese decades ago.   Many disturbing questions are quietly raised and it becomes clear that Oppenheimer had an incredible challenge  to reveal  the horror and terror of those events within a government system that still officially celebrates the “death of communism”.

The blurring of fantasy and reality is central to the film’s structure and essential message.  This is not just a cautionary tale about a culture “over there” gone bad.  There are numerous hints of our own complicity and risk and a reminder of Hannah Arendt’s identification of the “banality of evil”.

The role of filmmaking and the Hollywood mythology looms large throughout. Cowboys, gangsters and men in drag pass before our eyes throughout the film. The penultimate fantasy scene, complete with a rendition of “Born Free” is unforgettable.  Do these men ever “get it”?    Does it matter, given the gut-wrenching nature of their crimes?  Oppenheimer originally thought to make a documentary of the victims, but found himself drawn to men like Anwars Congo and Herman Koh and provides us with a remarkable opportunity to meet them.

The film will play one more weekend at the Detroit Film Theater.  Although it will eventually be released on DVD, I urge you to experience on the big screen.  This powerful film deserves to be seen, reflected upon and talked about.

“The Act of Killing” is an absolute MUST SEE MOVIE.

Jolyn Wagner





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