“It's a good family movie; plenty of humor; a great story; Wonderful scenery. It really show what's special about our country even though it's a film about death.”
In 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing managed to make almost every film critic’s list for the top ten films of the year and rightfully so because it’s a disturbing and challenging portrayal of Indonesian death squad leaders who share their unique point of view of the events that took place during 1965 when the military overthrew the Indonesian government. These thugs were promoted by the army to become death squad leaders and they each confess to having killed nearly a thousand alleged communists during that year. So you’d expect this to be their opportunity to confess their crimes and seek redemption, but since these men have no regrets for their actions and simply believe they were doing their government a favor, Joshua Oppenheimer convinced them to re enact some of their executions in the way they wanted to. Most of these men were heavily influenced by gangster movies and they share their love for some of these movies while they compare themselves and their actions to some of those characters, so it was a brilliant opportunity for Oppenheimer to have these men open up and share their experience through staging these scenes. The result is quite astonishing as you listen to these men talk about how they killed these people as if they were heroes and even mention how fun it was to rape the young communist girls. At the same time, it also seems to take a toll on some of them who begin to realize that their actions weren’t very humane. In one of the many shocking scenes, one of these leaders, Anwar Congo, decided to play one of the victims and in a way it became the first time that he actually put himself in the other person’s mind and the result was quite profound for him.
The greatest thing about this documentary is that it truly gets inside the minds of these murderers. There is no doubt that this film makes for an interesting study on human behavior and how small group mentality can help shape and justify such behaviors. These men are actually considered heroes and many of them are in high positions in the government (which happens to be extremely corrupt and isn’t interested in hiding that fact either). At one point these men even justify their triumph comparing it to how the native americans were exterminated during the colonization era. The culture that is portrayed in The Act of Killing is shocking, especially during those scenes where the gangsters joke about their crimes. Their involvement in this film isn’t so that they can share their testimony in documentary form, they want to become the stars that they grew up idolizing in movies and have shaped their behavior after them so they are persuaded to re enact their executions. Some chose to film their scenes in dark film noir style, others did it as if it were a war movie, and some even chose a surreal style where for example you have dancers singing with a gorgeous waterfall in the background as the spirits of the murdered men thank their executioners for sending them to Heaven and setting them free.
More than an entertaining documentary, The Act of Killing is an enlightening one and for that reason it’s difficult to watch. There are moments where the pacing does get a bit tiresome and the scenes repetitive, but it remains deeply effective. At times, I was so shocked by the way these men proudly told tales of how they executed their victims that I was convinced the subtitles were off and that the directors were simply changing the lines because there was no way that they could be so gleeful about their accomplishments. Oppenheimer manages to put a face on the evil we can’t even begin to comprehend and the result is quite shocking and disturbing, and he does so without ever being judgmental.