In 1965, the Indonesian military over-threw their government, allowing small time gangsters like Anwar Congo to rise in society. He was promoted from scalping movie tickets to leading a death squad that helped the military kill more than a million people, many of whom were alleged communists. He killed hundreds of innocent people with his own hands, committing gruesome acts of genocide, that of which most regions of the world are totally unaware. Today, Anwar is a celebrity in Indonesia, dancing on stage at political rallies and happily describing his violent past on TV talk shows.
Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is a searing, unforgettable cinematic experience and quite possibly, the most daringly original documentary I've ever seen. Anwar has agreed to stage re-creations of the violent acts he committed all those years ago, with full on Hollywood budgets and special effects. You get the impression Anwar believes he will be portrayed as a hero.
This is a story of real life monsters. The remainder of the running time consists of, in many ways, an experiment to determine whether or not these monsters actually have souls.
It's obviously impossible to feel sympathy for a man like Anwar. But as we meet him, we realize that he doesn't want our sympathy. He is not guilt ridden or ashamed of his violent past. Quite the contrary.
In private, Anwar would rather discuss cinema. He loves movies (particularly westerns and gangster films), taking influence from the cinematic violence he saw on screen. He admits that movies taught him better ways to kill. The cinematic term homage takes on a much darker definition in this context.
Scenes of barbaric surreality are juxtaposed with moments of such surface dullness and banality that I began to feel light-headed. Eventually, that banality is peeled away leaving the audience without comfortable footing. And that's when the re-creations begin. Films like this are rare. It is a masterwork. Many audiences will find scenes to be too disturbing to watch. In fact, comedian Patton Oswalt recently tweeted: "Most of you should not see (The Act of Killing)."
Director Oppenhiemer (who co-directed with Christine Cynn) puts faux-documentarians like Michael Moore to shame. He stares unblinkingly at injustice and cruelty in such a honest and direct way-- never appearing on camera or even narrating to tell the audience explicitly what he feels of these images. He just wants us to see them. This could be the most hard-nosed, unflinching documentary since Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies.
The film's harshest critics could argue that the film devolves into a series of deranged, sickening role-playing games. By the time that the re-creations are almost complete and it is Anwar's turn to play the victim of an interrogation (which in '65, meant torture followed by death), something totally unexpected happens. During the interrogation, Anwar is hit very hard on the shoulder. He was expecting that the punches would be pulled. And so, when the simulated strangulation begins, Anwar throws in the towel, trembling. "I can't do that again," he says.
They're literally beating on a frail old man and yet, you still sit forward in your chair, wondering: "What's it gonna take, Anwar?" How much more will this monster endure before he'll react?
Towards the end, Anwar lies on his bed, playing with a little toy chicken, softly singing to himself: "I feel nothing, I suspect nothing... but the torment always grows." This is indeed a disturbing film but, it is also a deeply meaningful, fascinating and emotional one. File this under Must See.
The Act of Killing is arguably the most important film of 2013.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.