Watching The Act of Killing is as close to feeling as if you’re travelling up river with Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) in Apocalypse Now ( Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). As you get deeper, your grip on reality and form becomes less pronounced, leaving you receptive for a truly revelatory cine-psychedelic experience.
You start with a clear premise; explore the inner workings of one of history’s surviving mass murderers (Anwar Congo – gangster and death squad leader during Indonesia’s 1965 communist purge) to see what hindsight does to the conception of their actions. It’s a rare opportunity, because unlike say the Nazi party, which was disassembled in defeat, the Indonesian government, paramilitary leadership and gangsters that conducted this genocide have leveraged their involvement into positions of power.
What’s essential is director Joshua Oppenheimer’s unique method. It’s not a simple interview.. The filmmakers provide the subjects with the tools to recreate a dramatisation of their cause, explain it to the outside world and the current society. The only condition, that Oppenheimer and his crew could document the entire process. For Congo and his closest collaborators the process begins with mirth instead of mercy. They proudly boast about the gruesome methods that they employed to dispose of communists; jovially demonstrating of torture methods and literally dancing around a site that they killed hundreds of people is how the journey begins. It’s both fascinating and terrifying to see the ease with which what most would call evil can occupy a group whipped into ‘belief’.
Once the film within this film begins production The Act of Killing begins its ascension. This historical recreation soon becomes a pursuit to entertain. There’s swapping of locations to be more cinematic (from their office to a luscious jungle), inclusions of dream sequences to give the audience insight into his mind (involving some cross dressing from his lacky Herman who cannibalises him) and intervention from the gods (a serene scene set at a waterfall including dancers). This detachment from the disturbing only heightens the impact examining the past is having on the subjects.
And just as The Act of Killing‘s purpose is to move the audience, it becomes a visual document for the power of cinematic art. Congo’s original group of gangsters originally stalked a local film multiplex, and extorted customers to make their living. As children they were shown anti-Communist propoganda in that same space that ultimately scarred their psyche. When their obsession with American cinema was threatened by Communists wanting to ban Western products it further fuelled the fire. Congo even confesses that he and his gang would go to the cinema and watch Elvis musicals to pep themselves up for some high order violence. The opiate quality of cinema to uneducated and impressionable minds is frightening. However, filmmaking becomes the prism through which this genocidal sociopath begins to fathom the impact that he’s made.
The Act of Killing discounts concepts of good and evil to embrace humanity; from the profoundly grotesque to redemptive hope. It’s documentary as both objective examination and subjective means of catharsis. Documentary cinema has a new apex.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.