IMDB Score – 8.3
Rotten Tomato Score – 95%
Netflix Watch Instant
Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary
Directed by – Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Annonymous
Starring – Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, and Syamsul Arifin
A documentary that challenges former Indonesian death squad leaders to reenact their real-life mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.
What makes a great documentary? I used to think it was just the ability to find great footage and develop the story around it. Lately it has been the ability to portray humanity for what it really is…a continually evolving machine of good and evil. It helps when the subject matter is interesting to the viewer but what I want most in a documentary is a view of life on this planet that is not normally seen and certainly not understood. Joshua Oppenheimer knocked the genre on its ass this year when he released “The Act of Killing”.
The film centers are Anwar Congo, a former deathsquad leader who claims to have killed over one thousand people from 1965 to 1967. Over one million people were murdered during this time period. They were killed when the military took over the government and claimed that anybody practicing communism would be put to death without trial. Some of these people were actually communist but most were killed on the slightest whim by a death squad/youth member if they thought they were a communist. Some Chinese residents were killed on the spot just because they were Chinese. These killings were not only allowed but completely backed by the national government. Villages were burned down, women were raped, and the murders were of brutal and sadistic fashion. The people who carried out these murders are not behind bars. They were not put to death. They are the stars of this film.
When I used to watch the History Channel before it became a reality television network for rednecks without teeth or clothes that fit, documentaries and mini series would run constantly of WW2. Nazi’s marching up and down streets with hate in their eyes backed by the screaming lunatic that was Adolf Hitler filled the screen. We all know about the Nazis and what they did. I’m not going to explain that. I bring this up because what is happening in Indonesia right now is the little brother to what happened in WW2. The big difference here is that the Nazis are no longer in control. The same regime that put these murders into effect is still in charge today and the general public still laud these murderers as heroes. This backwards ass fantasy world is alive and well and brought to light by Openheimer and his crew. They follow Congo, a charismatic old man, and his partner Herman, a younger and more chaotic man as they recall their past and bizarrely reenact these stories on camera. They have convinced themselves that they are going to be on the big screen flaunting their stories of murder for all to see and appreciate. Bizarre is not a good enough word to describe these reenactments. They are completely surreal and whacked out fantasy garble unfolding before Oppenheimer and his crew. The crew, who are being told these stories of murder as if they were daily anecdotes occurring on the way to work, have to shut off their intuition to interfere and keep the camera focused on their subjects. The end result is one of best collection of truly terrifying real characters that even the great fiction writers of our day couldn’t come up with.
The film is shot through mostly steadicam shots fixated on the subjects at hand. There are no talking heads dictating what the viewer is going to experience. The film travels through one nightmare to the next as these men are paraded around town by governing officials and asked to be on television talks shows where they boast about their countless murders to cheering fans and adoration. Reenactments occur in the streets with actors being cast on the spot and who seem to be forced into portraying the victims of these murders during their last moments. Children are crying and some are laughing during these “scenes”. It’s as if the children don’t know how to feel since they were not around to witness the actual horror but are instead told through stories. The emotion on their faces goes completely unnoticed by the youth leaders and former gangsters as most of the children are asked why they are so upset. I mean, it was only an act!
Like the Nazis before them and their northern neighbors, the North Koreans, the entire population of Indonesia is either completely brainwashed into thinking this genocide was essential to their history or are scared to mention the fact that their government is made up of a bunch of war criminals. I asked what is essential in a good documentary and the answer is still up for debate, but there is no doubting that “The Act of Killing” is a one of a kind look into a culture that is centered around killing and yet sees no problem with it at all. It’s a chilling film that must be seen and can be seen if you have a Netflix account.