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MIFF Film Review: The Act of Killing

Monday 12 August 2013

MIFF Film Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing has not only been a ‘must-see’ in every film festival where it has appeared, it is fast becoming a film that everyone, everywhere should be exposed to. Shocking, disturbing, truthful, raw and surreal elements make up this documentary and additional film within a film.

This documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer originated about the victims of an unsuccessful communist coup in North Sumatra and the mass murder that followed. Finding it difficult to track down victims willing to be interviewed, Oppenheimer turned his lens to the perpetrators, to make one of the most chilling films on the subject of genocide. It centres around Anwar Congo, and other members of the death squad through a series of interviews and re-enactments on some of the events and practises that took place between 1965-1966.

Oppenheimer’s direction is incredible in both extracting the truth through pointed and direct interviews and allowing free reign with the subjects’ filmmaking needs, which develops the story in itself without prompts, probes or guidance by Oppenheimer. The result is a series of surreal portrayals of killings that the interviewees reconstruct in the style of their choosing, including western, film-noir, soap opera in flamboyant drag, gangster, horror and more. What plays with audiences is that some of the violent techniques the death squad used in reality were inspired by fictional gangster films, only then to be portrayed on the screen again in this re-telling.

Through the film it is clear Oppenheimer has gained the trust and respect of the killers, or as they like to be labelled: ‘gangsters’, as they describe in detail the horrendous and bloody acts. One of the most remarkable quotes that represents the film and mentality of participants is, ‘war crimes are defined by the winners’, a response to a question regarding the UN perceptions and morality of the acts. The film also includes footage from events with the current Pancasila political party, which heralds the death squad members as ‘heroes’, openly calling themselves a gangster political party, and condemning the perception of their practices by the international community.

Besides the participants’ honest bragging about their roles and acts, one of the most gripping elements is the gradual realisation for Anwar and a handful of others that for the first time, what they did was criminal. Oppenheimer beautifully captures the thought processes as these men mull over their memory and contemplate how time has undermined their perceptions. In the beginning, interview answers are given without missing a beat or hesitation, but as the film progresses it dawns on some that they need to ‘shape’ how they present themselves as to not create a negative reputation. This shaping has no effect, only increasing the shock for the Pancasila party and member attitudes.

Contrasts between Anwar’s violent recollections and interactions with his grandson (telling him not to hurt the ducks and apologise to them) is surreal, like the entire film, which constantly blurs fact and fiction to the point of disorientation and a limbo state where the audience is adrift. Incredible moments are captured, like when a step-son of a deceased victim offers to help with the realism of a scene and sits, traumatised in between takes, as he listens to the death squad members recall their acts. Or the genuine trauma inflicted on participants in restaging a village massacre where, for the sake of the re-enactment, it’s unclear if actual houses of innocent bystanders were burnt for authenticity.

Overall, The Act of Killing is a groundbreaking piece of cinema and an astounding example of gripping and flawless documentary film that will leave you in disbelief right until the very end. On that note, make sure you stay to watch the credits, as bizarrely; they are just as revelatory as the film itself.


- Chelsea Denny