Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing is the story about a group of former Indonesian death squad leaders who are asked to re-enact the killings they committed in the mid-1960s during the turmoil that was happening in Southeast Asia. With additional direction by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian, the film is a look into the idea of killing someone as it’s told from a group of men that were part of a brutal death squad as they’re considered heroes in their homeland. The result is a haunting and visceral film from Joshua Oppenheimer.

In 1965 and 1966 following the 30 September Movement in Indonesia, a death squad that would later become the right-wing paramilitary organization known as the Pemuda Pancasila. In killing more than half a million people who were Chinese-Indonesians and some that were accused of communist activities, these men created a movement that still stands as it founders are still alive walking in Indonesia as they’re revered as heroes while some of them run the government. Among these individuals profiled in the documentary is Anwar Congo as he was one of the organization’s co-founders who went from being a black-market gangster selling movie tickets to being the leader of this death squad as he personally killed over a thousand people. Most of it through strangling a person with a wire.

Shot from 2005 to 2011, the film talks to Congo and some of his associates as they talk about their actions and their life in the present as they’re given the chance to re-enact the killings they’ve committed. Some of it in the form of the film genres they loved to watch as gangsters in the 1960s where they admitted to loving American gangster films. While it is largely a documentary, it does manage to subvert the ideas of the documentary where director Joshua Oppenheimer allow his subjects to create cinematic re-creations of their atrocities.

With the help of Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, Oppenheimer gets a lot of access into some of the events that occur in Indonesia that include Congo and his old friends attending these events. Some of which showcase new members of the organization they founded along with elections and such as they admit to rigging them. While Congo is the one who is interviewed the most as he is the most interesting individual of the film. The other men that give testimonies over their actions showcase a range of opinions. Many of which admit that the actions they committed were wrong as some have a hard time living with these actions while others have moved on and have no regret over what they did. Yet, it is Congo who would go through the biggest transformation as he goes from being this revered killer while getting an understanding of what it’s like to be in the shoes of those he killed.

Much of the shots that Oppenheimer and his crew, that consists of cinematographers Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree, and an anonymous Indonesian cinematographer, create not just some dazzling images of Jakarta and other locations as well as some of the re-enactments and interpretation of the killings. Much of it is presented with a sense of style through the help of the film’s massive team of editors in Niels Pagh Andersen, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, and Ariadna Fatjo-Villas Mestre. There’s also some unique music sequences and dance numbers that occur between the film to play into some of the surreal moments as it includes some unique sound work and music from sound designer/music composer Elin Oyen Vister.

The Act of Killing is a tremendously harrowing yet ominous film from Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s a film that not only explores the concept of mass-murder, genocide, and execution from the men who committed these acts but also how they interpret their actions in the form of cinema. It’s not an easy film to watch as it’s very grim in its subject matter as well as feature some dark humor but it’s certainly a film that is just engrossing to watch. In the end, The Act of Killing is a magnificent film from Joshua Oppenheimer.

© thevoid99 2014


Anonymous said...

Nice review, but I can't wholly agree. I just didn't see what so many see in this film. While I applaud the concept, i just didn't think that it worked as well as it was intended too. Still, as always, you make some nice points and validate your feelings, and many critics agree with you!

You can see my thoughts here:

thevoid99 said...

I can see why people are put off by the film over the fact that these men are still able to walk on Earth as they got away with their actions. The fact that they at least got to tell their story does showcase the sense of complexity of humanity.