Monday, July 29, 2013

The Act of Killing (****)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer


Every once in a while, it's nice to get a reminder how lucky we are to be part of Western democracies, where we're governed by institutions that allow for freedom of speech and the freedom to choose our beliefs and political affiliations. As The Act of Killing shows, there are many places that are not nearly as lucky. The film takes a sharp look at Indonesia and its stringent history for exterminating "communists". In the 1960's, Indonesia's path toward overcoming dictatorship was paved with vicious mass killings acted out by hired "gangsters". Those suspected of being communists were taken in, interrogated and almost always killed - killed in viciously creative ways, with all of the gangsters relishing the chance to act out scenes they saw in Hollywood movies. But specific people are targeted, ethnic Chinese living in the country are extorted, forced to pay officers or else they will be taken and killed by the gangsters as well.

Anwar Congo was one of Indonesia's biggest and most famous gangsters, reportedly responsible for personally killing around one thousand people. In today's Indonesia, Congo is treated as a rock star, one of the faces responsible for the formation of the ultra right-wing paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, which holds a firm political grip over the country. Men like Congo, and his partners in killing Adi Zulkadry, Herman Koto and Ibrahim Sinik, live like kings. They're treated with great respect, and are publicly boastful about their exploits. Without a hitch, they will tell anyone who will listen about their killings, rigging elections and political corruption. So inflated are their egos, in fact, that they invite an English filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, to their country to help them produce a film reenacting all of their harrowing deeds. What Oppenheimer captures in recreating these monstrosities is one of the most frightening, surreal cinematic experiences I've ever witnessed.

Oppenheimer gets in really deep with these men, Congo in particular. In his advanced age, Congo is now gentle, with a large group of family and friends who treat him like a comely grandfather. Watching him smile, giant gaps where some of his teeth are now gone, he does not in anyway project the personality of a coldblooded killer. But he speaks without irony or guilt about killing men by simply beating them till they died. When that got too messy, he decided that strangling men with wire was the best way to go because that's what all of the movie gangsters did. It's Congo's partners that better fit the mold. Herman Koto is a lumbering, oafish man convinced that he's as smart as many people have told him he is. He runs for office knowing that getting elected will give him the ultimate opportunity to extort civilians of all their money. Ibrahim Sinik openly admits that anyone who was proven not to be communists he ordered to be killed anyway.

These are gruesome men, but when Oppenheimer arrives, he and his cameras are treated with dizzied wonder. For the first time, Congo has the chance to be the movie star that he tried so hard to emulate in his killings. The interrogations are filmed in cinematic platforms, filtered through hollywood movie standards. Some scenes are framed like 1940's film noir, with harsh shadows cutting across the face of the "victims". Congo and Koto sport cowboy hats to recreate captures like they're old westerns. Koto's even willing to sport a dress in several scenes, including one in front of a waterfall that becomes an overwrought musical number. These men play several characters throughout, and some of the men, including Congo, even play victims in some of the scenes. As they film more and more scenes, all of a sudden their past actions become vivid memories, and it produces some surprising reactions from Congo and the other gangsters.

Perhaps the most fascinating figure in The Act of Killing is Adi Zulkadry, who many consider to be Congo's right-hand man in the killings of the 1960's. Zulkadry flies into Indonesia to help Congo and the men film some scenes, and almost immediately he speaks about how cruel they were when they killed hundreds of people. That they murdered and what they did was wrong, purely evil. But Zulkadry feels no guilt, instead transferring that guilt onto a historical tradition of evil whitewashing history. It's pretty scary how honest these men are with Oppenheimer. It's hard to believe that they knew what this film was to become and how it would portray them (though Oppenheimer claims that both Congo and Zulkadry have seen the film and condone it as true). It isn't until the end that Congo begins to realize the evil of his past, but unlike Zulkadry, he's not able to rationalize so easily.

As more and more scenes are recreated, The Act of Killing becomes a fascinating hybrid of reality and fiction. An attempt to glorify the past that instead only intensifies the truth - a truth that many in Indonesia have tried to scrub clean through violent threats and brainwashing. When the crew decides to film the infamous genocide of an Indonesian village, the actors playing both the killers and the victims are so shaken up that everyone goes home sulking. Congo, Zulkadry and Koto are forced to come face-to-face with the evil that they once produced and still perpetuate, and their varied reactions are stunning, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. Oppenheimer's documentary takes several twists and turns, and often enough you'll find yourself struggling to parse what's happening in reality and what's just an act for the camera. That imbalance makes this film one of the most unique experiences I've ever had in a movie theater and one of the best films I will see all year.

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