8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
Moving, Artful Documentary, 25 Aug 2013
An extraordinary achievement, as so many have already remarked; alternately chilling, humorous, poetic, and moving. Some quibbles, however. The focus is largely on two gangsters involved in Indonesia's (British and US-backed) campaign of terror in the mid-60s, though Oppenheimer has stated he interviewed some 50 similar subjects. A broader view might have been more appropriate, and context, provided primarily by an opening text, is wanting, particularly for younger Western viewers (this is the writing of history, after all). For example, we never hear of the 30 September Movement with its kidnapping and killing of six generals, precipitating Suharto's own coup, and the anti-PKI pogrom. Granted, a famed propaganda film, apparently portraying the assassinations, is seen in The Act of Killing's longer version, but its extremely important (if profoundly skewed) narrative is left unexplained. Also, the trailer for `Killing claims "We challenge [the subjects] to act out their memories of murder," but the challenge is the subjects' own. If it weren't, if Oppenheimer and his local crew applied any pressure whatever on the thugs that are the stars of the film (and of Indonesia's anti-communist culture), then this astonishing film in all likelihood would have been impossible. Certainly none of the boastfulness and desperation of expression would be in evidence. Nor would it be quite accurate to say the camera is a distancing device - that its warping and simplification of events somehow alleviates the weight of culpability these individuals have managed to shrug off publicly for decades, since the genocide of 65'-66' that inaugurated the Suharto regime. The willingness of the subjects to appear on camera and have their criminality documented is in fact startling. (In one segment the camera follows several members of the paramilitary Pancasila Youth as they shake down Chinese immigrant merchants, openly extorting money from each.) Concerning the Hollywood-style `reenactments', the imported artwork has been taken to heart, then reified through crude staging. Refracted through local life and history, the resulting imagery is simultaneously familiar in its genre elements and hellishly foreign in its playful irreverence and morbidity. Anwar Congo, a celebrated killer of "about one thousand," recalls that after a particularly upbeat American film at the cinema where he used to scalp tickets, he would re-enter the world as if in a musical, returning to the interrogation center to kill "happily." We survey a large collection of "extremely limited" crystal figurines - among them Tinkerbell - in one former executioner's opulent home, an aging gangster savoring the benefits of State-sponsored terror. In another mansion, belonging to the head of the death-squad supplying Pancasila Youth, we see diorama after diorama of stuffed exotic animals, and a room devoted to Hollywood memorabilia (Brian De Palma's Scarface figures prominently).
The staged scenes that break up the film's more direct reportage are conceived individually, as set pieces with little apparent coherence or timeline (with the exception of one grand, Vincente Minnelli-style finale, in which Anwar is thanked by his victims). The gangster-stars of these surreal vignettes fluidly switch roles from perpetrator to victim, from wounded soldiers and cowboys to showgirls, suited gangsters, and vengeful spirits. The effect is disarmingly fresh and horrific, and one can immediately see the project's appeal to Herzog (one of the project's executive producers). When Oppenheimer presented the film recently at the Walker Art Center, both the domestic theatrical release and international release versions were shown, on consecutive evenings. While the longer version (some 45 minutes longer) contains some useful contextual information and a number of longer inter-views with the subjects, I would recommend the shorter, 115 minute version if you happen to catch `Killing before it leaves theaters (undoubtedly its best viewing context). This is not because the viewer is spared additional horror/s - the longer version is in fact more personable and easier to digest - but because of a number of editing and shot choices that I found superior. The most striking of these comes at the film's close, when Anwar visits for a second time the former interrogation center that, in an early scene, he danced on the terrace of (in effect the building's killing floor), but now assays with a new humility, despair, and psychosomatic nausea. In the international version the scene closes with the image of Anwar in the process of leaving the space, paused on a stairway landing between the open-air terrace and the ground floor - essentially caught in the throat of the building between past and present, recognition and escape. The shorter version of the film closes with a longer version of the scene. After pausing on the landing, we cut to a full shot on the ground floor and pan from the bottom of the stairs toward the building's entrance. As Anwar walks away from the camera toward the door it becomes clear that the former interrogation center is now a shop, the walls on either side festooned with hundreds of gaudy handbags - a supreme image of the victory of Suharto's New Order `reforms'.