So once again we have survived.

The Act of Killing

tn_actofkillingBTISLMan, I don’t know how long this will last, but when I finished watching THE ACT OF KILLING I had a strong feeling that not only did that have to be the best movie I saw from 2013, it might be one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s an amazing, one-of-a-kind documentary that achieves a whole bunch of things: it shows me fascinating, outside-of-my-experience human beings in crazy situations; it’s a stunning visual portrait of places and people in Indonesia; it is deeply upsetting and shocking and yet at times horribly, uncomfortably funny; it tells my ignorant American ass a few things about a major human tragedy I never heard of but also, it sounds like, helped the people of Indonesia start to address a deliberately whitewashed part of their history. When you hear the subject it sounds like a message movie, but aside from that it has what I think is always more important in a documentary: it captures some incredible human moments that you can’t believe you’re actually seeing, including a monstrous war criminal coming to realizations about what he did.

It accomplishes this all without a single talking head, no narration and very little explanatory text. It plunges you into this world of war criminals and their supporters who are amazingly comfortable with director Joshua Oppenheimer (and un-named Indonesian co-director – at least half of the names on the credits are listed as “ANONYMOUS”). Oppenheimer is barely seen or heard but sometimes they address him by name like a trusted friend.

The subject is a group of gangsters who who in 1965-1966 were sanctioned by the leaders of a military coup to mass murder anyone who opposed their regime. Their victims included members of a non-revolutionary communist political party and anyone else they wanted to accuse of communism, such as all Chinese people. The main character, Anwar Congo, boasts about killing his half-Chinese girlfriend’s dad. He goes to the place where he killed supposedly more than 1,000 people and starts talking shop – how he would never wear light-colored clothes like this because of the blood, stuff like that. He proudly explains his system of strangulation to cut down on the blood, because it smelled bad. He even gets a guy to sit and smile with a piano wire around his neck. He’s like a dude you ask about his job and then he overestimates how interested you are and goes into way too much detail.

mp_actofkillingWhy can he talk about this so casually? Because these men are not considered criminals. In fact, Anwar is a founding father and hero to those who don’t fear him. In his mind he’s the same as a WWII vet telling stories about shooting down Nazi planes. But there’s some mixed messages here. His sidekick, a fat guy named Herman Koto who weirdly reminds me of the great actor Lam Suet from the Johnny To movies, thinks it’s a cool brag to say they’re more sadistic than Nazis in WWII movies. Another guy reminisces about raping 14 year old girls. His friends don’t seem to get uncomfortable, they laugh and joke and say “delicious!”

The crazy gimmick of THE ACT OF KILLING is that the filmatists somehow convinced these motherfuckers that they should make a movie about one of their famous massacres. They get to do it how they choose, and they choose to play themselves and some of their victims, burn down a village full of their own wives and children playing “communists,” and have a big musical dream sequence in front of a waterfall with Herman in drag and the ghost of a communist giving Anwar a medal as thanks for sending him to Heaven. While they’re making the movie they turn a little Hollywood, get kind of full of themselves and there are a few moments that are almost like what they’d say if this was a Christopher Guest movie and not a real documentary. In one of the numerous scenes that blew my mind one of Anwar’s neighbors who is playing a torture victim tells them, apologetically, about his family being killed and how it affected him. Anwar brushes it off like the guy’s giving him creative notes, saying they just don’t have time to tell everyone’s story.

The moviemaking is insane, but it’s not as much of a stunt as it sounds like. These guys are still known as “The Movie Theater Gangsters” because they hung out at a movie theater, scalped tickets and watched American movies before going across the street to kill people. They loved Elvis Presley movies and say they tried to dress and act like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or John Wayne (obviously their Pacino fandom would’ve had to come later in life – but I wonder if they’re as into SCARFACE as the rappers are?). They say they got ideas for killing people from American movies, though no examples are given.

In that sense it’s about the idea of movies influencing people, but it’s also about that thing people call “the transformative power of cinema” or whatever. Because the act of acting out the killing and then watching it forces them to see it in a different way, like Mick Foley in BEYOND THE MAT seeing the footage of his kids crying while watching him in the ring. For a while they’re oblivious, having fun, not understanding why their children and wives playing the victims are crying. Then they turn all sweet and comforting. There are several jaw-dropping scenes where the re-enactments cause one person to suddenly become self-aware – the more observant killer who points out that their movie is disproving their own propaganda about the communists being the sadistic ones, the paramilitary leader who feels he has to make a statement about his troops acting as a bloodthirsty mob not representing what the organization is about, Anwar himself not being able to continue after playing the guy with the wire around his neck.

It also made me think about those debates where people think showing something in a movie means endorsing it. Here are the actual bad guys, playing themselves, and their casualness in talking about their crimes is so much more powerful than it would be to hear someone else explain what they did. In fact the movie came out of Oppenheimer interviewing victims who told him he could get more from interviewing the perpetrators. Give them enough rope, you know. In this case enough wire.

There are so many different aspects to this that fascinate me: the contrast between the TV host talking cheerily about Anwar’s “more efficient and humane” killing methods with the grunts in the control room wondering how he sleeps at night, his own constant complaints about how he sleeps at night, the many uses of propaganda points about “gangster” meaning “free man,” one war criminal giving another advice about psychiatrists, Anwar’s attempt to not get upset about his execution scene by dragging his grandkids out of bed to show it to them…

herman-lamAnd this guy Herman always gets my attention, even when he’s just slumped lazily against a wall nearby while Anwar does the talking. His relationship with Anwar is interesting, he seems to worry about him and try to comfort him when he gets upset. He looks younger than Anwar and I was unclear if he was there for any of the atrocities or if he’s just a hanger-on. But he gets really into the interrogation of “communists” for the cameras, as if he’s experienced in it. And they actually got him on camera shaking down a terrified Chinese store owner for protection money. They didn’t have to hide the cameras, I think he actually thought it would be a cool thing the show in the documentary. And then all the sudden he’s wearing fancy dresses and makeup for his massacre movie.

There’s an emotional breakdown that happens in the movie, and a friend of mine asked me if I thought he was faking it. It hadn’t occurred to me, but in a way it wouldn’t matter. Even if it’s an act it’s a confession that he’s not a hero, that he knows he’s a monster. He hints at it throughout the movie, throwing in off-handed comments about recurring nightmares in the middle of reminiscing about the good ol’ days. Obviously there’s some part of him that gets it. Not that that solves anything.

I heard such praise for THE ACT OF KILLING that I knew I should see it, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I didn’t know that much about it but what I heard sounded fucked up and disturbing, like a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST of actual documentaries. And now that it’s been nominated for the best documentary Oscar it probly also sounds Important. Well it’s probly kinda both of those things, but it’s so much more. It’s that rare documentary grand slam of great subject, great filmatism and great luck in what they were able to get on film. Don’t feel like it’s an obligation. It’s not medicine, it’s not vitamins. It’s more like a drug, an intoxicating hit of pure cinema being used to its fullest potential of capturing crazy, weird, fascinating, fucked up, horrible life.


note: I watched the theatrical cut, but there is a considerably longer director’s cut included. Let me know what you think if you see that version

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 17th, 2014 at 3:34 pm and is filed under Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “The Act of Killing”

  1. Glad you loved it, Vern. Easily the best film of 2013.

  2. The scene with Anwar’s neighbor talking about his step-dad being killed and his family being relocated to the jungle is absolutely amazing. The guy laughs about the whole thing and keeps adding, “I’m not judging” as he speaks but then it cuts back to him and he’s fighting back tears. Jesus, that got to me.

  3. Performance Artrocity

    A few lines in THE ACT OF KILLING refer to nightmares, the notion of the vengeance of the dead, and the puzzlement over how a killer sleeps at night. I get that; I think about that stuff, too. This film might be as great as others have said. Glad y’all are so impressed. Cinema needs a champion of complex emotional asskicking.

  4. My fave documentary in a good long time, such a crazy movie.

    When I saw it at a theater here, there was a minute or so clip of the director right at the start of the movie kind of explaining what the film was about, and in this clip he felt compelled to say twice that he did not hope for us to “enjoy” the movie but he did hope it would inspire us and make us think etc etc, and I was just tickled pink by the notion of a director starting his movie by saying “this ain’t meant for fun yo.”

    And he was also correct.

  5. Anwar is definitely faking it. I also think the people are so unsympatheic and remorseless that I can’t really get behind the movie– whatever larger point it wants to make about human nature and art as a witness is kind of lost on me. I just see an asshole being an asshole, and faking catharsis at the end was the final straw of the asshole hay bale.

  6. Vern, generally I love that you review movies in your own time and on your own schedule, often after the dust has settled, rather than having to review every one of them while they’re brand new and still surrounded by excessive hype.

    But this one screened in my area earlier this year, and if I’d read this review I might have gone to see it. D’oh!

  7. I like seeing dissenting opinions about the movie. I was not emotionally moved by the movie. I was definitely disgusted, but that is not a reason to go back and watch it more than once. Lots of admiration for Joshua to go down that rabbit hole. Holy shit, I wonder what that must have been like. Every day to wake up, knowing you’re going to film these people. This is a story the filmmaker lived with for YEARS. I was done with it after 2 hours. I can’t imagine..

  8. Has anyone seen the longer cut? There’s one version in the neighborhood of two hours, but apparently there’s also a version with something like thirty or forty minutes extra, supposedly with a lot more of the fake (?) movie they’re making.

  9. The longer cut is less focused but is still pretty interesting. As I recall, they include footage of the insane, ultraviolent, anti-communist films they would show schoolchildren. None of that is in the shorter cut, correct?

  10. I remember calling last year’s “Into The Abyss” something like “an absolute masterpiece from one of the best filmmakers of our time.” In a year that seemed to be just one great film after another, it was the one I thought was the best, and it was also a documentary.

    I’d be interested to know how “The Act of Killing” compares to it. Anybody seen both films?

  11. Not last year – the year before, sorry. I can’t quite get out of the 2013 mindset, other than it was nowhere near as great as 2012 I guess.

  12. Brandon — You really think Anwar is faking it? I dunno, I definitely believed it. After all, we’ve already seen him “act” and it does not appear to be his strong suite. And why would he fake that? He has nothing to gain and everything to lose by admitting that he feels guilt.

    Paul — ACT OF KILLING is better than ABYSS, which in itself is fantastic. They’re probably equally depressing but if you can believe it I actually think ACT is the more hopeful of the two films. Whereas ABYSS is bleak and almost nihilistic, ACT seems to be able to imagine a better world, and maybe find some shred of good even in people who have done monstrously horrific things.

  13. Mr S – I did think “Into the Abyss” had hope at the end of it, specifically with the baby (honestly I think that’s a huge part of why it was as great as it was). But all the same, if “Act of Killing” is that good – wow.

    And, like just about every other great film that you guys have been talking about last year, the chances of it actually being released anywhere near me are pretty much zero. Maybe if it gets the Oscar it’ll be released in the arts cinemas or something, but the last Oscar-winning “best documentary” I saw was “Inside Job”, which I thought was just ok; my impression was it was probably picked more because of its subject matter than because it was particularly insightful or had anything original to say (it wasn’t and didn’t). That doesn’t speak very well for “Act of Killing”‘s chances. Hopefully I’m wrong here and it DOES come out in the arts cinemas at least.

  14. I watched the extended version just this week. It is an incredibly powerful and affecting film that works on so many levels. You have mass murderers discussing very freely the atrocities that they did in the middle of filming their version of what went down. You have Anwar, who I feel has always pushed down whatever he felt about his acts in the past and is now having it all bubble to the surface. He feels guilt, is how I read it, and does not know how to process it so he finds other ways of not dealing with it. You have his other friend who flew in to film, and he clearly has thought about what he did and simply justifies it was their job. He knows it was terrible but the years have passed and he and the gangsters who are part of the present day paramilitary group are sanctioned by the government. There is a frank exchange with the director where he says that war crimes are defined by the victors and in this he is probably realistically right.

    Corruption is everywhere and can be seen in the scenes of Herman running for political office. Was this in the theatrical cut? Because that was horrifyingly bleak, with people asking for “gifts” for their votes and Herman talking about the kind of kickbacks he could get as a politician.

    It really is quite incredible.

  15. Mr. S- yeah, I can’t get past the idea that Anwar’s faking his catharsis. They’re making movies and he’s just giving them exactly what most movies give you– it’s just a character arc. But it’s all acting and he’s allowed to get better at it as the movie progresses. And he does.

  16. And I spelled my own fucking name wrong. Stop listening to me, now.

  17. Paul — you… you found that baby… a… hopeful sign? You’re talking about the baby born to the psycho woman who decided she wanted to marry the sociopathic murderer (sight unseen!), and was determined to ensure that he got her pregnant?

  18. Mr S – when you put it like that then it sounds weird, but yes I did. The whole film had been about the “cycle of violence” in that neighbourhood. I guess the implication was that the baby might spell a break in that cycle.

  19. Also, was the bit about Herman pointing out a journalist who was hanging around the set in the theatrical version?

  20. I saw the longer cut. It didn’t seem unfocused at all to me. There is definitely footage from the propaganda films, though not a lot.

    I agree that Herman’s run for office was bleak, but the two moments that effected me the most were the shakedown of the Chinese shop owner – their faces were petrified – and the interview with the journalist/newspaper owner who blithely described how he fabricated evidence against people that led directly to their deaths.

    There were these odd little moments interjected into the narrative, like that scene of Herman brushing his teeth. So unsettling.

  21. This movie tore me apart. It was just so brutal and bleak. I felt i needed to see it all. I needed to try to figure out what it all meant. I watched it with a friend who was not as open. He got visibly angry about it all and had to leave. Me? I stuck it out and it’s stayed with me for months. The world can be a horrible place filled with very real monsters… but I found it strangely encouraging that those monsters couldn’t stay blissfully unaware of how horrible they truly are. You have to believe, and the film lends weight to this thought… that when they are alone in their most private moments they know what truly horrible creatures they are and it eats at them despite their false bravado.

    That’s just one of the many thoughts I took away from this film.

  22. Saw this last night. I found it an extremely confronting watch and my wife couldn’t stomach it at all. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff they were saying; if it were in a fakumentary like MAN BITES DOG I would think it was too ridiculous. There were definitely times I was wondering whether it was ethical to be giving these guys a platform and feeding into their delusion. But it’s about more than giving these guys enough rope, it’s about how the process of making the film-within-a-film gives them a broader understanding of their actions, or at least allows their mask to slip a little bit.

  23. Mr Subtlety, your SCANNERS reference pretty much sums up my first impression of this provoking film. Although I´ve never seen the extended cut, this shit blew my mind. I don´t think I have yet taken in it all yet since a lot of it takes place in an entirely different historical context that I am familiar with and with the discourses that comes with it. But that is why it is so important.

  24. Shoot — as I wrote in my review, ” At my age, it’s a very rare thing for a film to truly allow you to look on the world with new eyes, but it is not exaggeration to say that Joshua Oppenheimer (and his anonymous Indonesian collaborators) have done exactly that… ” It genuinely gave me new perspective on humanity. I watch hundreds of movies every year, but nothing else came even close to affecting me this way in a long, long time.

  25. Vern,

    Just watched the Director’s Cut and it came in at a gut wrenching and surreal 2 hours 46 minutes. To make it worse and yet compelling, one of the languages that I’m trained in, is Indonesian. Some of it unfortunately is lost in translation, when you read the subtitles and it’s understandable. There were moments, when they were fully aware of what they were doing and they were embarrassed; and they just watered down the shocking, gruesome details, in Indonesian, but this didn’t translate well into English. Ugh.

    Stunning how in one scene, the journalist (today’s Medan Post newspaper) proudly explained that his role was to interrogate alleged Communist sympathizers and if he deemed them to be Communists, he’d just wink at the gangsters who’d taken them away and have them executed. This gives a whole new meaning to journalism…

    I am destroyed having watched this.

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