act of killing
Is The Act of Killing worth the hype? Two critics debate the merits of Joshua Oppenheimer's re-enactment doc.
PRO: The act of genius
The Act of Killing fully deserves every superlative and award lavished upon it over the course of its sensational festival run – it is without exaggeration one of the most extraordinary cinematic feats of recent years and easily ranks amongst the most insightful, powerful and praiseworthy documentaries ever filmed. The film focuses on a group of men responsible for the torture and murder of thousands during the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66. Today, they are national heroes, celebrated by the media and free to openly brag about their former exploits. Oppenheimer pulls off an astonishingly candid and intimate – and all too terrifyingly human – portrait of these charismatic and thoroughly genial monsters, whom he offers the chance to film re-enactments of their killings. To thus recall and process their past in such minute detail unwittingly forces them to confront the moral implications of their actions for the first time, triggering a gradual and entirely organic evolution from exuberant bravado to violent recognition of guilt. A worthy companion to Hannah Arendt’s writings on the psychology of mass murder, The Act of Killing is a resounding masterpiece that speaks volumes about the nature of evil and the universality of ethics, all the while serving as testament to the power and potential of the medium of film. GMC
CON: The act of manipulating
Sycophantic praise is always suspicious. In this case, the chorus of over-the-top positive reviews speaks volumes about the complacency of reviewers too eager to fall for a highly manipulative documentary that doesn't just explore evil, but which uses very fishy methods to its own ends, while making the viewer the accomplice of a highly dubious, ‘sado-charlatan’ enterprise.
The star of this doc is Angwar Congo, the perfect protagonist for a sensationalism-hungry filmmaker: a cheerful old man, who, we're soon to learn, was a petty gangster before turning paramilitary murderer – boasting of having personally garrotted hundreds of his countrymen during the Indonesian massacres. Next comes Oppenheimer's genius idea: lure Congo and his gang of (apparently) remorseless pensioner perpetrators into re-enacting the brutal feats of their youth on camera by inventing a (fake?) movie. Reenactments become acts of remembrance, and the past is brought back to life as a surreal waking nightmare – with guaranteed jaw-dropping effect.
Unsurprisingly, audiences have viewed the project as both a chilling revelation of Indonesia’s darkest secrets and an exploration of the common face of evil. But what is truly chilling is the casualness of the filmmaker. Historical reality is obviously not a concern of Oppenheimer, who seems to use 'shock' as a guiding value. the film makes no attempt to evaluate the truth of Congo’s confessions. What's fact and what's the boastful mumblings of a deranged old man? Did he kill as many as he claims? No one seems to really care. Clearly for Oppenheimer, the grimmer and gorier, the better. Counting on the voyeurism of the viewer, this well-oiled machine of cinematic manipulation turns into an exhibitionist freak show.
Symptomatic is the lack of transparency about what's staged and what's not. Toward the end, returning to the rooftop scene of his many murders, Congo 'discreetly' throws up... on camera. Did he know that his ‘friend’ the filmmaker was filming? Did Oppenheimer trick him? Or was the incident staged? By the time Congo started gagging, my stomach had long turned itself. MY
The Act of Killing | Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (Denmark, Norway, UK 2012), documentary. Starts November 14
Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.