Review: The Act of Killing

Brave and unconventional Joshua Oppenheimer’s exposé of Indonesia’s bloodstained rulers may be; it’s also suspect – formally, historically, emotionally and conceptually.

Tony Rayns
Updated:

from our July 2013 issue

It’s not Joshua Oppenheimer’s fault that his film has been so massively overpraised since its premiere (in a three-hour version) at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012. The Act of Killing documents the filmmaker’s encounters (seemingly over an extended period) with former leaders of a Pancasila Youth paramilitary death squad in Northern Sumatra.

The main protagonist is Anwar Congo, who enthusiastically demonstrates how he and his cohorts slaughtered hundreds of ‘enemies’ in 1965 and dreams up a few musical fantasy scenes designed to celebrate their famous victories. The sheer novelty of showing unrepentant mass-killers who are only too happy to re-enact their crimes for the camera impressed the likes of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog enough to make them come on board as executive producers, and the finished film has been widely taken as a Herzog-like vision of mankind’s capacity to wallow in hells of its own creation.

Oppenheimer himself describes his filming method as “an investigative technique, refined to help us understand not only what we see but also how we see and how we imagine. (The resulting film may best be described as a documentary of the imagination)”. Those italics are his, and they’re designed to paper over the seams in the film’s mix of interview, reportage, re-enactment and kitsch fantasy. Perhaps they’re also designed to deflect attention away from the signal lack of historical analysis and Oppenheimer’s evident reluctance to make explicit anything from the timeframe of the filming to the details of his dealings with the killers.

There’s no doubt that The Act of Killing is a bizarre and disturbing watch, and it’s easy to agree with the well-known Indonesian director who says (necessarily in private) that the film’s overriding merit is that it shows how bloodstained scumbags are still in charge of much of the country today.

In interviews, Oppenheimer has rationalised his decision not to chronicle what happened in 1965 but instead to explore the psychological gestalt of a country in which mass-murderers brag about their slaughtering – and still intimidate their neighbours – with complete impunity. His encounters with conscienceless killers and tactical complicity in helping them to re-enact and glorify their crimes clearly called for nerves of steel; his own probity is beyond question.

What can be questioned, though, is the thinking that governed the assemblage of the material. The near-total absence of context, either about the historical facts or about the production process itself, definitely doesn’t help us understand what we’re seeing or how we’re seeing it. (There’s more about the historical context in the synopsis accompanying this review than there is in the entire film.)

On the contrary, the emotionally manipulative use of some of the material (particularly in the closing scenes, which suggest that Anwar suddenly becomes aware of the enormity of his crimes) raises all kinds of questions about veracity. Are the impressions we get from the film’s sequencing of events any more trustworthy than our reaction to Flaherty’s notorious stagings of ‘reality’ in Nanook of the North – or to the selection and editing of snippets in an episode of The Apprentice, for that matter? Without a grasp of the decisions taken during the editing, a sense of the film’s timespan and of what’s been left out, we’ll never know.

And that’s without even asking what it means to cut from ciné vérité-style reportage to Anwar’s own clunky attempts at Hollywood-style musical tableaux: a chorus-line emerging from the maw of a giant fish (actually a former restaurant), dancers swaying in front of a waterfall to the strains of Born Free.

Oppenheimer includes footage of Anwar and his henchmen reminiscing about their movie-going in the 1960s – they idolised Brando, Elvis et al – to explain the roots of these rather tawdry fantasies and to suggest the mindset which fuelled their killing sprees. But his own shortcomings as a cinephile prevent him from making obvious connections between his material and the work of other filmmakers, in Indonesia and elsewhere.

He could have picked up lessons in conceptual sophistication from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who explored the psychic scars from anti-communist massacres in Thailand in his film Uncle Boonmee and his installation Primitive, both of which also incorporate movie dream-worlds. Or he might have looked at the Anglo-Cambodian documentary Enemies of the People (2009), in which Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath slowly coax Khmer Rouge functionaries into demonstrating their killing methods and Pol Pot’s ‘Brother Number Two’ Nuon Chea into confessing his undiminished faith in a ‘final solution’; that’s a fine film which hides nothing of its makers’ tactics or decisions.

And Indonesia’s braver directors, such as Riri Riza, Edwin and Joko Anwar, are producing remarkable insights into the lasting impact of their country’s historical problems in fiction features. Shocking as it often is, this all-too-unrefined film is a mere Western footnote to their work.

Correction: the printed version of this review states that The Act of Killing premiered at the “Copenhagen Documentary Festival”; in fact the film first screened at the Telluride Film Festival. The text here has been amended.

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