Starring: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Running Time: 117 mins
The Act Of Killing is a documentary following a group of former Indonesian death squad leaders as they recount their mass killings during the 1960s, reenacting and reliving them as they are challenged by the filmmaker to make a cinematic version of their atrocities.
Documentary films, whatever their subject matter, typically take a very common approach. By detailing, describing and analysing the topic, they serve to inform, persuade and entertain you as the viewer, while everybody and everything on screen is set a little more in stone.
The Act Of Killing, however, takes a brilliantly bold approach to documentary filmmaking, aiming to achieve the same functions as typical films of the genre, but equally contributing a unique and important development to the history it’s telling, changing the reality of its subject matter as it closely follows the men who were once part of atrocious mass murders.
In that, this isn’t a typical historical documentary. If you’re looking for an analysis and description of events in Indonesia in the 1960s, then The Act Of Killing probably isn’t the best film to start with. It gives some good context early on as to what it’s calling back to, but rather than simply describing the history, it brings something completely new to the table.
Now, in both cinematically bold and physically brave fashion, director Joshua Oppenheimer and his co-directors go deep into Indonesia and effectively befriend a group of old men who were once leaders of brutal death squads. In doing so, they document the men’s lives decades on from the atrocities they committed, showing how they live on in relative comfort at the cost of justice and the lives of so many.
That alone is a disturbing and rather heart-wrenching reality to see, but what’s so brave about The Act Of Killing is how it challenges these men straight up to confront the realities of what they did in the past, in some cases seeing the total lack of remorse from some, and the small traces of guilt and sadness from others.
And above all, it’s the latter that really makes this film a stunning watch at times, particularly as it moves away from a more orthodox historical documentary to effectively creating new history and drama on its own. At first, it looks at the devastating reality of men akin to war criminals not only living out their lives in relative comfort, but also having gained significant influence in their community, and in some cases national politics, as well as a disturbing portrayal of their glee when recounting the mass murders they committed.
However, as the film begins to delve deeper into the mentalities of the men, in particular Anwar Congo, a major figure from the time period under the microscope, it opens up a fascinating and boldly emotional story that sees Congo come to the realisation of the scale and horror of what he once did.
Oppenheimer directs that story brilliantly, interfering as little as possible in Congo’s epiphany, yet through the documentary’s unique style, brings you as close as you’ll ever get to befriending and even sympathising with a man guilty of mass murder, sparking an incredibly complex emotional and moral response that speaks volumes about the importance and originality of what this film achieves.
I will say that The Act Of Killing isn’t the most exhilarating film from a pure cinematic perspective, and although it impresses with a unique, unorthodox form, it does sag at times, particularly in its middle portion just before we see the first signs of real repentance. However, as far as detailing history in a striking and bold style goes, as well as contributing an entirely new chapter to the story of these former mass murderers, The Act Of Killing really is a very impressive film, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7 overall.