Very rare is it that a documentary takes its spotlight and shines it on something as troubling as mass genocide. And it is even more rare that the filmmakers involved take their picture, hand it over to those who committed these atrocities, and allow them to not only restage them, but do so with whatever gusto they see fit.
However, that is exactly what director Joshua Oppenheimer and his crew have done in the breathtaking new documentary brought to us from Drafthouse Films, The Act Of Killing.
One of 2013’s most discussed documentaries ever since hitting the festival circuit playing events like SXSW earlier this year, The Act Of Killing tells the story of Anwar Congo, a small time gangster turned murder squad leader following the military coup in Indonesia back in 1965. He and his friends/fellow mobsters helped their army take the lives of more than a million people, for being nothing more than alleged Communists, intellectuals or even just Chinese.
That’s not exactly the story we become privy to, however. Instead of churning out something like the closest comparison to this film, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the film doesn’t just interview the evil men who committed these acts, but it does something far different. Oppenheimer hands over his camera to Congo and his crew, allowing them to tell their own story the way they seem inspired to. What follows is not only a deeply troubling experiment in non-fiction filmmaking, but it takes the worlds of fiction and non-fiction storytelling, bashes their respective heads together, and what follows may very well be the best film of 2013.
Brilliantly able to touch on things ranging from the power of cinema to accountability, the film’s greatest attribute is in its willingness to avoid judgment. It is inherently impossible not to judge these men as they try to not only justify what they’ve done in their lives (the Indonesian word for gangster also means free man, something they try to drive home repeatedly), the film’s premise allows for these men to try and tell their stories. Congo and his men, avid fans of cinema ranging from Westerns all the way to film noir pictures, take to this freedom and while it may seem somewhat malevolent to give these men the stage, what follows is simply breathtaking.
While they do try to glorify their acts in the various staged sequences, these are not the film’s crowning moments. When the film is truly at its cinematically groundbreaking best, is when Oppenheimer sits these men down, and through this premise, forces them to confront their truly evil past. We are, through this film, finally seeing these men be put on trial by the worst judge of them all, their own conscience. Come the film’s masterful final act, we see that even the leader himself has been overcome by his past, making every bit of this two hour long picture completely worth it.
That said, the staged sequences are also thrilling and quite telling. While early on the staged sequences feel a bit cold and arguably tough to watch, things slowly begin to unravel, ranging from the sure-to-be-iconic final sequence to an interrogation sequence near the film’s middle block. Driven home with a handful of sequences showing that their group, Pancasila Youth, is still alive, strong and influencing their respective government, the film occasionally finds its narrative overlapping on itself, much like the cyclical nature of violence found within Indonesia even today. Ultimately just as bleak as it is truly enthralling, The Act Of Killing is both an insight into the soul of a killer as well as a look at the institutionalization of violence. It’s truly breathtaking.
It is fitting that Oppenheimer has been doing the rounds and subsequently talking about his appreciation for Lanzmann’s Shoah, because the two feel as close as two films could possibly get. Both forcing criminals to take a look at their own by facing their history head on, Oppenheimer’s film isn’t as brooding as Lanzmann’s, but it feels like Shoah’s logical modern relative. Using archival footage sparingly, the film not only forces these men to look at their past, but in a sense remake it in their own image. It’s a brazen cinematic experiment that hits every single note perfectly, allowing for these truly evil men to be unable to escape from what they’ve done. Absolutely breathtaking, these more introspective moments are.
With Errol Morris and Werner Herzog firmly behind the picture as producers and “presenters,” The Act Of Killing is the definition of groundbreaking. Featuring gorgeous photography and a sense of humor as black as the night sky, The Act Of Killing is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Taking genocide head on, Oppenheimer doesn’t allow the freedom given to Congo and his crew to make for a sloppy, aimless film. Instead, he doesn’t so much allow as force this man to reconsider the atrocities that he and his friends committed. It is in this forced reconsideration and forced look at one’s own conscience that makes this film something that should be seen by anyone and everyone.