FILM: ‘The Act of Killing’ is a different kind of documentary

Here is something you can’t understand...How I could just kill a man

The bad guys prepare for their shot in "The Act of Killing"

The bad guys prepare for their shot in “The Act of Killing”

Roger Ebert once said that cinema’s power was in its ability to garner empathy better than any other artform. I agree with him. But what is left once you’ve come to understand a monster? Twenty-five-foot sharks, giant apes that scale the Empire State building, masked killers stalking babysitters? They got nothing on Anwar Congo and his band of merry men.

“The Act of Killing,” opening exclusively in Portland at Cinema 21 this Friday, is political punk rock filmmaking with elegance. It’s a truly unique documentary, all the more impressive and terrifying because it’s real. The conceit is daring, brazen, seemingly insane: the subjects, led by Anwar, detail in alarmingly candid interviews how they went about actually killing people. Then things get really weird. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asked them to dramatize the killings on camera in a series of increasingly bizarre reenactments. By watching themselves do terrible things on camera, they come to realize the scale of their crimes. If there’s a parking lot for films that showcase the power of cinema, ‘Killing’ would get the prime spot.

Anwar is a founding member of of Indonesia’s Pancasila Youth paramilitary movement. His rise from small-time gangster to death squad leader during the 1965 military coup d’état in his country (the subject matter of Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously, with Mel Gibson) is nothing if not cinematic. A rags to riches story if you will.

Imagine a world where the Nazis won and were still in power. That is the world of Indonesia, like a real-life version of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant alternate history novel, “The Man in the High Castle,”  and the film’s setting. This reality is more terrifying because it’s normal, everyday stuff. The bad guys won in this chapter of history, and because they’ve never had to answer for their crimes—including mass killings of some 500,000 people—they’re actually proud of this history, and wanted to participate in a movie showing their might.

That’s where Oppenheimer stepped in. He and his crew embedded themselves among Anwar and his friends, a group of men for whom an occupational hazard was trying to avoid getting too much blood on their clothes. In the film within the film, they re-enact murders, all in the guise of their favorite American movie genres (westerns, crime stories and even musicals). Even more troubling, they aren’t duped in to doing this. Their compicity is our entertainment.

Anwar proves a fitting lead subject for this, because it provokes a conflict with him: Confronted with the reality of the horrors he’s responsible for and forced to examine his actions, he starts to doubt himself. That it took the making of a schlocky movie to come to this understanding is just another brilliant added layer, a meta look at the power of cinema and a disturbing dose of reality wrapped in a terrifically entertaining piece of nonfiction filmmaking.

This documentary will knock the wind out of you. To say it’s important is misleading, because it might make you think the experience will be the equivalent of taking your medicine. But dry, by-the-numbers and soap-boxy this is not. Oppenheimer is smart enough to know what makes great cinema is not just the facts. This is a film, in form and function, that  burrows into your psyche. You won’t be able to let it go.

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The opening image is a doozy. I don’t know where Oppenheimer found that massive plaster fish with a track running through its body, but it’s one that won’t recede from your memory. Six women emerge from its gaping mouth. Proportionately, they’re like worms compared to this structure. The purple clouded sky on top of the water adds an additional layer to the bizarre, good dream gone wrong feeling. As the women dance, not sexually, but robotically, they turn back and gaze at the fish. It’s surreal, nightmarish, absurdly comical and pretty much perfect.

From there things get more outre, scary and at times funny.  You’ll see gangsters steal from food cart owners on the street, on camera, like it’s a regular part of their day. Anwar and his men talk about the best ways to kill  their victims (apparently long piano wire works best for this). Re-enactments of mass murders and interviews during which the men talk candidly about atrocities committed, are peppered throughout the two-hour running time.

Things continue to go down this nightmarish path, but gradually we come to understand these men. They don’t think what they’ve done is bad. One of them even paraphrases Winston Churchill—history is written by the winners—but coming from him, it sounds terrifying.

It’s not much of a surprise that famous documentarians Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed off as executive producers on this film. Perhaps no other filmmaker has so successfully achieved Herzog’s notion of the ecstatic truth than Oppenheimer has with “Killing.” And Oppenheimer shares Morris’ skill at examining every angle of a complex story and probing deeply into his subjects. This is a perfect marriage of journalism and entertainment, a shining example of what movies can do.

“The Act of Killing” is a landmark achievement. It bends the “rules” of documentary to create something unique, that rarest of feelings at the cinema. It’s a great film, one that can’t be forgotten, and should be seen by everyone.

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Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #78, features an in depth discussion and review of “The Act of Killing.”

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