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The Act of Killing (2012)

March 17, 2014

the act of killing poster

For the past three months, the Oscar nominated documentary, The Act of Killing, has been recommended to me more times that I can recall. Of all the people who’ve thrown the title in my direction, not a single one discussed what the film was about or how it affected them afterwards. Instead, I was repeatedly informed of Werner Herzog and famed documentarian Errol Morris’ close ties with the project and that The Act of Killing was simply “a good movie.” I was completely unaware that Herzog and Morris were merely executive producers whose names secured the film’s distribution and attention. I was completely unaware that the subject of the film was a group of aged assassins who spent a better part of 1965-1966 killing thousands of communists and Chinese citizens all under the guise of national pride and vengeance. I was unaware that the The Act of Killing’s American born director, Joshua Oppenheimer, would play such a pivotal role in extracting extensive information and brutal realities from these men. I was completely unaware of how emotionally draining watching The Act of Killing would be and I had no foresight that it would haunt me days after viewing and drape me in a curtain of pessimism and disdain for the human race.

The Act of Killing Film Dogwoof Documentary

Oppenheimer, along with his co-directors Christine Cynn and an unnamed Indonesian, candidly documents the leaders and members of the paramilitary currently in charge of the Indonesian government. Throughout the film, viewers learn of the group’s direct role in the genocide of hundreds of thousands of “communists” beginning in 1965. Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and Adi Zulkadry are at the forefront of the film. As members directly involved in the 1965 executions these men unabashedly discuss their crimes with pride and valor since their deeds have led to the military’s near totalitarianism rule. Throughout The Act of Killing we meet members involved in the mayhem whom boast of their roles in framing and killing innocent victims. We also journey along beside these men as they bully and hustle shop owners for money just to show off their power to the cameras. But, the most intriguing aspect of The Act of Killing is Oppenheimer’s collaboration with these men to reenact their crimes for the screen. The men happily agree since they view their acts through a lens of historical pride wanting to make their reenactment showcase their deeds. They scout locations, recruit actors, pick out costumes, sit through hair and makeup, and direct amateurs to relieve the torture they expounded on others.

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What transpires is that audiences watch as these men come to terms with their own delusions and crimes; some have pushed the murders to the backs of their memories and skewed the information in their own heads to make themselves the victors. Through carefully placed camera angles and stationary moments of cinéma vérité style of filming, we watch these men rally together to reenact the past, but also reflect on the repercussions of their deeds. Anwar is a notorious assassin who begins the film upbeat in  pride of killing, yet at the project ventures on he finds himself physically nauseous at the perils of his deeds and contemplates the pain he caused others for the first time in over 40 years. Adi’s mental fears come from the possible legal repercussions that may follow his friends desires to be honest and open. Apathetic to his past, Hector just wants to make a great film that’s filled with action, romance, and humor thus fully embracing his role as a criminal and murderer. All men proudly refer to themselves as gangsters, more appropriately defined by them as “free men.”

The Act of Killing’s subject matter is a difficult one to digest. The men committed their crimes with such clinical precision that they lack the emotional understanding of what they did. Hector tells his daughter that she’s embarrassing him after a reenacted scene is cut because she continues to cry over the emotional weight of what she had to portray. The men we follow are thorough and honest in the way they killed, what they felt or didn’t feel, what they did and how they behaved. One scene captures the sadistic nature of a human when a man nonchalantly explains his penchant for raping teenage girls and the menacing declaration he’d tell them: “it will be hell for you, but for me it’ll be heaven on earth.” The Act of Killing is ultimately captures the worst elements of humanity. One character simply reminds viewers that there are people like him all around the world, a statement that rings true when we think of the injustices that happen everyday from The Central Republic of Africa to America.

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Oppenheimer transports viewers into the depths of hell and suffering to remind us how justice and morality is only an illusion and defined differently from person to person. Adi is bravely confronted with the fact that what he participated in was considered war crimes by The Geneva Conventions. Adi responds by explaining that when Bush was in charge Guantanamo was accepted as “good” and Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, however, now that Bush’s reign is over these things are considered bad and wrong. Adi states that morality and the Geneva Code are of today, but tomorrow Jakarta code will be in place. A staunch reminder of how frail our understanding of morality truly is. In ancient roman times it was acceptable to watch men fight to the death for sport. In Jesus’s time it was moral to kill a man for blasphemy or stone a woman for adultery. Today, it’s considered moral to deny others civil rights because of sexual orientation or commit genocide because of religion: all because law and religion gives these denials of human rights a pass. The Act of Killing is a hard film to watch, but that’s only because it’s a hard fact to remember how dangerous and callous human beings at the root of it all are.

SEE IT. But I warn you, you may hate the human race for a while.

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