I have finally gotten around to watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, only a few days ago. A lot of the film reviews I write are written hours after seeing the films; I like to capture my gut reaction as much as possible. Yet, The Act of Killing has taken a while to sink in. I felt the need to digest the film before leaping to the keyboard. It is no secret that this documentary has been a controversial one. The Act of Killing introduces us to several Indonesian men – it is two in particular that we are in the constant presence of. These men refer to themselves as gangsters. The Indonesian word for gangster, “preman”, stems from the English meaning “free man”; a fact we are persistently reminded of throughout the documentary. Almost fifty years ago these men were part of a mass genocide – taking the lives of over one million people who were accused of being communist. The leaders of the death squads include Anwar Congo – the film’s main subject. An ageing man, Congo is shown in the hairdressers having his greying hair dyed back to black, fishing, dancing and cuddling his grandchildren. Such footage is inter-cut with images of Congo demonstrating the way that he would strangle individuals with steel wire. The Act of Killing asks Congo, along with fellow executioners from 1965, to re-enact the murders they committed. Joshua Oppenheimer documents this process.
I still can not tell you whether or not this is a ‘good’ film. Perhaps a film like this, that deals with matters so delicate and horrendous, is above a critic’s rating system. Handing out however many gold stars to The Act of Killing seems a little contrived. What I can tell you is how simultaneously angered and enthralled I was by it. My anger is surely largely on behalf of the victims of the torture and killing, all those years ago. Some of my frustration is on the part of the current citizens of Indonesia; the honest shop keepers being forced to hand over inconsistent percentages of their earnings, to men who would harm them otherwise. Some critics have categorised The Act of Killing as a snuff film; accusing it and its makers of glorifying murderers and the horror they inflicted in 1965. I don’t see glorification here. Some of my fury rose from the apparent lack of condemnation from Oppenheimer and his crew but, in retrospect, he was in the company of evil men. No archive footage of historical events is used; something that I felt would have benefited the portrayal of the monstrous. Then again, Oppenheimer doesn’t seem to want to paint pictures of monsters – rather, he seems to want us to see only the human. This is, altogether, more frightening.
If there was ever a more blatant example of a cinematic discussion of ethics, I am yet to witness it. The Act of Killing attempts to tell us nothing but show us everything – typical of so many films dealing with the philosophical issues surrounding ethics. Oppenheimer’s film brings to the surface some pretty deep questions and truths – all of which seems slightly tainted by a less than sincere ending. As part of the re-enactments, the executioners must play their victims. It seems perfectly obvious to an audience that if these men are ever to face the guilt of their actions it will be in these moments, through the realisation of what facing death would have been like for those they killed. It is not for me to say whether there is remorse of forgiveness. The film starts to crumble when one man contemplates his sins. The final moments of the film don’t fall in line with everything else. I was left feeling slightly disappointed and baffled by the film’s closing thoughts. I am walking through this review with trepidation because there is no doubt that The Act of Killing needs to be viewed more than once. I hope to return to the film, this time to the forty minute longer ‘Director’s Cut’, in the hope of gaining a deeper understanding from it and of it. The Act of Killing is brave and brutal; baffling and a little disappointing but nonetheless, a courageous and controversial effort. Even now, I don’t feel like I’ve said enough in this review. Maybe that’s where the magic lies; in this film’s ability to get under your skin and into your conscience.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.