*** (out of four)
Warning: The documentary “The Act of Killing” contains disturbing footage, particularly if you just booked a trip to Indonesia.
For the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer tasks several men who acted as executioners in 1965—when members of the military who overthrew the Indonesian government killed more than 1 million alleged communists in less than a year—with cinematically re-creating some of the murders they perpetrated. Since one of them, Anwar Congo, notes that he sometimes was inspired by brutality he saw in films starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or John Wayne, “The Act of Killing” becomes a chilling example of art imitating life imitating art. (The film hardly exists as an examination of the social effects of violent media, however.)
To see a man recalling the mandated slaughter of the Chinese (“If I met them, I stabbed them,” he says, noting this included his girlfriend’s father) or another delighting in the rape of 14-year-olds (“I’d say it’s going to be hell for you but heaven on Earth for me”), I mean, what can you say? It’s sickening. The film absolutely doesn’t glamorize this behavior, and it’s staggering the matter-of-fact manner with which some of these killers and corruption advocates speak. They treat genocide with a shrug. Others discuss how they’re able to self-justify their cruel behavior.
That said, there’s something pretty unpleasant about a film that gives voice only to the perpetrators, rather than the victims’ families. I don’t know much about Indonesia, and the strange “The Act of Killing,” which at times feels like a stunt, doesn’t provide a solid understanding of this world or how these men became who they became. Anwar speaks of nightmares that plague him, but when did he have this shift in perspective? Despite the completely different circumstances, it reminds me of a quote from “Quiz Show”: “It was the getting away with it part that he couldn’t live with.”
At one point, while acting in a scene in which he’s nearly strangled with wire, Anwar feels very uncomfortable. On the one hand, it’s something to see a gangster with a crisis of conscience. On the other hand, who wouldn’t be uneasy?
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