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The Act of Killing

Posted by martinteller on September 24, 2013

Anwar Congo was one of hundreds of executioners in Indonesia following a military coup in 1965.  The executioners were tasked with dispatching a million accused “communists” (or Chinese, or intellectuals… anyone who might oppose the leadership) however they saw fit.  Congo — along with his thug henchman Herman Koto — are asked to recreate these killings for the camera… however they see fit.

The results are both endlessly fascinating and morally repellent.  There have been other documentaries where war criminals of this ilk describe their atrocities — Japanese Devils, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Shoah — but rarely are they so open and unapologetic about it.  Congo and Koto are even gleeful in their filmic creations, boasting and patting themselves on the backs for their ideas.  The acts themselves are chilling enough, but put in the context of a bizarro musical or an old film noir set, it reaches otherworldly levels of unsettling.

The Indonesian system is revealed to be well and truly fucked.  The massive paramilitary organizations are treated as heroes for their help in ridding the country of “enemies”.  Relatives of the victims are told on public television that if they seek any kind of reparations or revenge, they will be exterminated too.  The political structure is an acknowledged joke, with bribery happening openly and no expectations that anyone really believes in what they’re saying.

As a movie about making a movie, there are the expected meta touches.  To what degree is the audience a participant?  I must admit, when Congo talks about the inspiration he got from Hollywood movies, for a moment I felt guilty about every cheap thrill I ever got from cinematic violence.  And never mind the cognitive dissonance that arises when presented with some humorous moment in the midst of all this horror.  It’s too much reality to be “black comedy”.

The film touches on so many aspects of the situation, sometimes with just a line here or there, but enough to provoke thought.  It’s almost too much to process.  I rarely rewatch documentaries, especially 160-minute ones, but it feels as if there’s a lot of angles here to be mined for further reflection.  The movie is one of the best I’ve seen this year: simultaneously surreal, unreal and too goddamn real.  Profoundly disturbing but absolutely riveting.  Rating: Great (90)


6 Responses to “The Act of Killing”

  1. nancy said

    I’ve read other reviews about this movie, and they agreed with you. I don’t think I’m up for it.

  2. JamDenTel said

    I was quite impressed by a lot of it, but I thought there was a little too much time spent on modern Indonesian politics (I got the point pretty quickly), and not enough time spent on Congo’s films. But another viewing might change my tune.

    Also, you say it’s 160 minutes–did you get to see the original director’s cut? I saw it in theaters, in a 115-minute version that apparently pares down the contextual material (possibly to the film’s advantage).

  3. I was happy to stumble across this.

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