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Riveting ‘The Act of Killing’ Demands to Be Seen

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CHICAGO – We like to think that mass murderers are pure monsters. They don’t have kids. They don’t walk around free. They couldn’t possibly have a moment of joy after causing so much pain. This is, of course, nothing more than a comforting fallacy. And yet film has had a very difficult time of tearing down this façade. Even documentary films often present their killers as pure villains. This is not to say that Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of the mesmerizing “The Act of Killing,” lets his subjects off the hook, but he allows the process of filmmaking and the act of remembering to do the judging for him. This film is jaw-dropping. It’s a must-see.

In 1965, there was a failed coup in Indonesia, which led to the formation of murder squads, men who prowled the cities and countryside in search of men, women, and children deemed “Communists.” These squads killed millions of people, and the power structure that put them in place has done nothing to bring them to any sort of justice. They committed genocide and walked away. Many of them are still protected by a government that feels like it could commit similar atrocities any day now. There seems to be a slight turning of the history pages to capture the true horror of what happened then but it’s a gradual, slow process.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

As one of the men says in “The Act of Killing,” “War crimes are defined by the winners.” It’s a scary statement but not 100% true. Oppenheimer’s film captures men literally in the act of realization of their role in war crimes and how they may not be judged at The Hague but will never sleep a nightmare-free night again.

Many documentarians would have met these men in their element and simply interviewed them, perhaps intercutting their stories with archival footage or expert interviews. “The Act of Killing” has a completely unique approach, one that captivated two of the masters of the form (Errol Morris & Werner Herzog) to such a degree that they agreed to Executive Produce this work. Oppenheimer asked the mass murderers in his film to reenact their crimes for a filmmaking crew. All of the men are obsessed with Hollywood, claiming they used methods from “gangster films” in their killings. They use the camera, makeup, and act of recreation to reach deep into a part of their own history that they don’t seem to fully understand yet. And, importantly, that feels present. The military groups that condoned and even committed some of these crimes are still in power and the filmmakers were so concerned about their own safety that half of the credits that roll at the end merely say “Anonymous.”

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

The center of “The Act of Killing” is Anwar Congo, a mesmerizing man who may have killed over 1,000 people. At the start of the film, he casually throws out stories about his murderous days, talking about the decapitating wire he used and how he would practically dance across the street from the movie theater to kill the captured Communists across the street. Congo seems to have little regret. 45 minutes into the film, the tone shifts. Some of Congo’s colleagues show up and they seem to have some more ghosts in their souls. Even Anwar starts to talk about nightmares. And then a guy, pretending to be a Communist victim in the film within a film, conveys a story about how he buried his stepfather on the side of the road when he was 12. And he’s laughing and maybe crying while he says it. Everyone in Oppenheimer’s film seems to begin to recognize their own cruelty and sadism.

There are jaw-dropping minor moments in “The Act of Killing” that say so much about the way one culture impacts another. One of Congo’s associates uses Guantanamo to defend their own actions. Bush thought that was right then; it’s wrong now. Another practices his speeches for a run for Parliament by mimicking facial expressions of an Obama speech. And the film within a film sequences have a surreal nightmare quality that won’t soon be forgotten.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing
Photo credit: Drafthouse Films

Oppenheimer profiles other people but keeps coming back to Congo. Great documentaries have captured on-screen “therapy” before (like “The Fog of War”) but never quite like this. The film turns again when they stop just recreating actual events and try to capture Congo’s nightmares on film. This is a man who pretended to be a gangster based on what he saw in the movies and didn’t realize the pain of what he caused until he was forced to recreate it for another film. Oppenheimer’s film captures something remarkable about how all the discussion in the world can’t always get at what can be conveyed visually. Our brains can repress dialogue and alter memories. Seeing the horrors of a recreation of an entire Chinese village that was burned to the ground and hearing men laugh about the children they raped there has a power that nothing else can replicate.

As you surely know, “The Act of Killing” is not an easy film. I don’t think it should be. We see too many clinical, talking-head movies about atrocities. Eddie Izzard has a great bit in one of his best routines in which he spoke about how we can’t even really wrap our brains around genocide. We get the act of one man killing another man but something in us shuts down at the thought that Anwar Congo killed one thousand people or more. It’s unfathomable. And so Oppenheimer finds a way to get the true horror of it that simple discussion can’t grasp. In doing so, he’s made one of the most important films of 2013.

“The Act of Killing” was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and opens in Chicago at the Music Box on Friday, August 16, 2013.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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