Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)
Abundant are the films that, post-viewing, make you grateful for the experience, even though they took you far outside your comfort zone. There are even those that you really wish you could un-see; those that haunt your mind like a recurring nightmare. And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a torturous two hours you should receive an award for enduring.
Before I take my ceremonial bow, the first person to receive a big pat on the back (or hug, I’m not sure which is more appropriate at this point) should be the Danish-based director who skillfully pieces together one of the most horrifying and revealing documentaries that will perhaps ever be crafted. It’s a little difficult, in this present moment at least, to fathom a film going to the places and lengths that this monstrosity does.
A camera crew takes to the dirty streets of Medan, Indonesia where they locate a number of death squad leaders responsible for the mass slaughter of millions of fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. The objective? To prompt these men to talk extensively and candidly about the events that took place during the military overthrow of the Indonesian government, while also allowing them to perform re-enactments of precisely what, who and how they killed.
The staged killings would become part of a film Anwar Congo and his ‘gangster’ friends (notables include Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry) are making in an effort to publicly boast about how they were able to eliminate so-called communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and any other individuals they deemed ‘undesirable’ and threats to the stability of their nation. (The concept of stability is somewhat ironic, considering a military coup d’état became necessary in restoring the perceived balance of power in this perpetually troubled nation.) A paramilitary organization known as Pemuda Pancasila evolved out of the death squads led by Congo and Zulkadry, and has been in place ever since. In the documentary, we are forced to confront this most intimidating of groups as they continue to harass Indonesians mere feet away from the camera crew. Frightening as this organization is, its really not the focus of Oppenheimer’s/Congo’s project.
Really this film has dual purposes. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for these truly vile men to express their nostalgia for the good ole days, when they raped, tortured and murdered those who they thought deserved it. On the other, Oppenheimer is giving these individuals all the tools they need to show their true colors. One might argue that they already have done that by performing the acts that they did in the ’60s, but one would only be 50% accurate in that assumption. What is said and revealed in this documentary surpass the murders themselves.
Watch the scenes in which the fat, disgusting blob of a human being named Herman Koto. . . you know what? There’s almost no point talking about this anymore. It is just crushing my heart. I literally have no words to describe the vast majority of the content, and at the risk of me sounding like I’m writing this film off, this review in itself was next-to-impossible to write, and is causing depression of the highest degree, so I no longer have desire to analyze this as a piece of creative expression. Mainly, because it’s not. This may very well be looked at as terrifyingly effective propaganda for the opposition. I have spent days trying to pin down my feelings on it. Such a task seems now fruitless, and I don’t feel comfortable diverting any more attention to this abomination. There is genius in the construction but the subject matter is too off-putting. It’s almost offensive considering the power that The Act of Killing may add to the anti-communist sentiment found in southeastern Asia.
Recommendation: Don’t do this to yourselves. This is the cruelest thing you’ll ever watch; not to mention, it’s paced like a snail and the subject matter makes it feel even longer. The fact that a documentary was made on these people has scary implications — Oppenheimer just took a can of gasoline to a raging fire. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia. What a fool. And what a fool this reviewer is for thinking this was going to be anything other than ugly. Where’s my damn prize?
Running Time: 116 mins.
Quoted: “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”
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