The Act of Killing: A Surrealist Masterpiece
Mix the sardonic irony of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the surrealism of Fellini’s 8 1/2, add some John Waters’ staging and costuming with the brutality of Sam Peckinpah films and what do you get? The Act of Killing. Getting to a truth far deeper than a standard documentary or drama can do, this surrealist film lays bare the banality of killing. Murder was a part of the culture in Indonesia in the 1960s, and in many ways, it still is.
In The Act of Killing, former “gangsters” and paramilitary leaders are filmed as they reenact their brutality, justifying murder as only “killing communists.” And these war criminals happily participate in the film. Using elaborate sets and costuming, they reenact murders in killing rooms, murders on the street, and murders in remote villages, most often with smiles on their faces. The cast in these reenactments consists of former paramilitary leaders, many who became wealthy for their actions during the communist purge of 1965-66 that killed approximately 1 million accused communists, ethnic Chinese and people opposed to the government. Villagers and other Indonesians also participate in these reenactments.
The war criminals from the days of the purges call themselves “gangsters”, and for them, “gangster” translates to “free men.” They take pride in their past murderous actions. They are obsessed with American films featuring gangsters and emulated many of the techniques for killing that they saw in old Hollywood movies when committing their war crimes.
Having war criminals reenact their own crimes is a powerful technique. I applaud the director for allowing the paramilitary leaders to tell the story of their atrocities. It creates a film like no other and gives us a view of killing in the nation that we would have otherwise not seen. Giving the war criminals some say in the way their history was filmed is not an endorsement of their actions what-so-ever. I am glad that Oppenheimer had the courage to do so.
People have criticized the movie for either not making enough of the U.S. assistance to the military dictatorship in the murder of its people or for not pointing out that the communist PKI was also involved in killing, as if PKI crimes justified the killings by these paramilitary groups and the Suharto regime. Those criticisms ignore the main point of the film: the effect mass killing has on a society and its participants.
For anyone, especially fans of documentaries, this is a must see movie. Bring a friend so you can discuss the film with someone afterwards. The emotions that the film elicits are as powerful, intricate and difficult to unravel as the themes presented in this surrealist masterpiece.
Rating: Pay full price; see it twice.