The Act of Killing is a chilling and powerful documentary. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, this film examines former death squad leaders in Indonesia. In 1965, there was a coup, and the military sought out and killed anyone and everyone suspected of Communism. This film interviews several of these individuals regarding their prominent role in these events. They have long been celebrated and lionized (while simultaneously feared) in Jakarta for the role that they played in the purge.
This isn’t a standard talking heads doc. Instead, Oppenheimer combines traditional interview footage with footage of the subjects reenacting (with much theatricality) the events from that time period. The result is incredible.
Listening to them talk about these murders is fascinating (and sometimes horrifying). This is a culture where not much has changed in the last 40 years, and what these men have done is still viewed by many as heroic and as a strike against oppression. They have never been punished or called out for these acts of genocide, and likely never will. So to hear them discuss these murders so candidly (one of our subjects, Anwar Congo, was rumored to have killed over 1,000 people himself) and without remorse is unnerving, to say the least, but also fascinating. Particularly when they begin to talk about how the memories of these atrocities have affected them over time, and they way each subject has internalized and dealt with the lingering effects.
One of the things that struck me during The Act of Killing was how much this film blurred the line between fantasy and reality. I love horror films. I love the feeling of being scared, the feeling of suspense and of shock. I love seeing the amazing work that the FX guys do behind the scenes to create horrific images out of latex and foam and paint. And while I know that everything I am seeing is not real, I love being swept up by the story and allowing myself to forget that fact for a few minutes and just enjoy the experience of confronting these emotions in a safe environment. I do absolutely believe that horror allows us to deal with psychological fears.
But this film muddled that. And it did it in ways that I wasn’t anticipating. Because even though the men onscreen were using props and costumes and even though we had seen them block out the movements only a few minutes earlier, this was different. Because it wasn’t completely fake. Knowing that these guys were acting out events that not only had actually happened, that they had not only witnessed, but that they had perpetrated and controlled offered a different viewing experience entirely. Even though my brain knew that what I was seeing was fake, it still felt more real that most of the much more graphic and extreme stuff that the horror genre has to offer. It felt dangerous. It felt unsafe. Not only for the people onscreen, but for me in the theater. This is a film that definitely pushes comfort zones.
But that’s important. And it’s one of the reasons that I love film so much, and one of the reasons that this film hits as hard as it does. Because sometimes you need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone in order to understand and appreciate something new. And this film is challenging. On paper, these men are monsters. But you spend some time with them and you watch them interacting, and you start to realize that they are human as well. They are capable of tender moments and of humor, and you might even find yourself kind of liking them a little bit. The humor, actually, kept the doc from being two hours of uncomfortably dark. And you wouldn’t think it from the description or the trailer, but there are some honestly hilarious moments in this film.
As fascinating as the story onscreen is, I am really interested to learn about the filming process. Oppenheimer had to have put himself into a dangerous position to make this film, and I am curious to learn more about what the experience was like. A lot of what was caught on camera had to have been serendipitous and couldn’t have been planned for. He had to have made calculated pushes to get some of the amazing and uncomfortable scenes that we saw, and I am very curious to see how he went about doing that and what some of these subjects were like when the cameras weren’t rolling. Because while the initial coup is over, Jakarta is still a volatile area. I am curious about how this film came together.
The Act of Killing is definitely a challenging film, but it also an amazing one. It will be released by Drafthouse Films later this summer. I highly highly recommend it.