It is quite unusual to come across a piece of film making that owes so little to what has gone before, it has to be absolutely unique. This is essentially a documentary about the Indonesian killing squads from the 1960's and what they did, but with them re-enacting their deeds.
The `gangsters' are all Hollywood movie fans and so Director and visionary Joshua Oppenheimer invites these men to make their own films about what they did. They can use any medium they like. So we have exotic dancers emerging from the mouth of a wooden fish building. Actors parading in front of a waterfall pretending to be in heaven and a re-enactment of a village massacre, to name but three. Plus the obligatory scenes of torture and execution, with some bizarre make up in places. I do not know how he got these men to talk about what they did or to show in such graphic detail.
I often make notes if I am going to write a review, normally only a few sentences, but I wrote two pages on this. The main guy is Anwar Congo who shows us his Hollywood inspired garrotting and dyes his hair especially for the re-enactments. They all talk with disarming frankness about their crimes insisting that they, as gangsters, were always going to be better than communists.
They ignore the contradiction with Islam being into drugs, alcohol, mass murder etc. They still extort the ethnic Chinese and were content to be filmed doing this. They strut around with impunity and some of the scenes they get people to act for them and they all seem to be genuinely terrified, especially the children. One of them keeps dressing up as his women victims in a grotesque parody of what really must have taken place. There is some remorse but to say too little, too late, is obviously not enough. They experience a tiny fraction of what they did to others and claim to be able to empathise, until its pointed out that they know they are not going to be actually tortured to death.
So `meet the killers' would be a good alternative title, but I was left moved, disturbed and horrified in equal amounts and yet still amazed that this could all be true. An astonishing accomplishment that anyone seriously interested in film should see. It has haunted me since seeing it and I have been telling everyone about it. This ranks in my top five most disturbing films and the others are all fiction, this was sadly real.
on 27 August 2013
"The Act of Killing" (2013 release; 115 min.) is a documentary from writer-director Joshua Oppenheimer who sets out to interview/expose several of the "evil-doers" behind the mass killings that took place in Indonesia in 1965-66. As the documentary opens, we get to know Anwar Congo, one of those directly involved in these killings. Anwar and several of his croonies have decided, apparently with some coaxing and suggesting from Oppenheimer, to make a movie about the events from 65-66, so as to make sure everyone knows what really happened, including how exactly these killings were executed.
Several comments: first and foremost, in what kind of a world do we live in that these mass-murderers boast about what they did in the mid-60s without any fear of apprehension, let alone any regret over what they did? To the contrary, we see Anwar Congo and his croonies making the rounds of various media, including a national TV show, where the host merrily goes along. Likewise with Indonesia's politicians at the highest levels. Here is a Indonesian Vice-President addressing the Pancasila paramilitary oraganzation that did much of the killings in the mid-60s, there is the Minister of Information showing support for the making of the film, and on and on. It simple blows the mind. Second, it must be that these killers truly have no inkling why Oppenheimer is making this documentary, as they are on a very friendly and first-name basis with Oppenheimer throughout the movie. Third, the re-enactments make for difficult movie-watching at times, in particular the further we get into the movie. This is most definitely not for the faint of heart, so viewer beware.
I saw this movie just this past weekend at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, and the particular matinee showing I was at was very well attended, somewhat of a surprise to me, given the subject matter of this movie. The showing actually started with "A special announcement from director Joshua Oppenheimer", in which Oppenheimer introduces the movie and concludes "I won't say 'enjoy the film' as it's not necessarily that kind of a movie, but I would hope that you have a powerful movie experience", and that is certainly is, and then some! This movie is one of the more usual documentaries I have seen in a long time. Assuming you can handle the at times schocking and always revolting characters we get to know in the movie, this is definitely a movie you want to (need to) see, be it at home or in the theatre.
"All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets", a quote from Voltaire is quickly followed by a shot of a giant fish with women dancers emerging from its mouth, plus a priest and a drag-queen in a day-glo blue dress. Within seconds, you've witnessed the surreal and disturbing essence of Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary film `The Act of Killing'.
In mid 60′s Indonesia, a failed coup led to more than a million people being slaughtered in a bloody anti-communist cull. Many of the killings were carried out by paramilitaries and gangsters hired by the government, who have not only escaped prosecution, but are still seen as local heroes who collectively control much of Indonesia. Oppenheimer manages to convice these gangsters not just to interviews, but to re-enact their atrocities with the artistic licence to "create scenes about the killings in whatever way they wished". Not only were these gangsters only too happy to do it, Oppenheimer gives them more than enough rope to hang themselves.
We witness shocking stories from many despicable men, each worse than the last, but mostly concentrating on Anwar Congo. This sprightly 70-year old gangster could pass for an Indonesian Nelson Mandela, with his fuzzy white hair and taste in gaudily coloured shirts. His side-kick Herman Coto is more of a buffoon, and opts to dress in drag for the film, but you wouldn't mess with him. We meet a newspaper publisher who happily lied and sent innocent people to their death, the still celebrated paramilitary organisation Pancasila Youth that wiped out thousands of Chinese citizens, to many other graphic stories of guilt-free gangsters murdering and raping whoever they wanted to. We see re-enactments of specific torture and killing techniques, inspired by their favourite Hollywood gangster films, westerns, and war movies.
As if rehashes of old Hollywood films were not disturbing enough, musicals were given even more artistic licence with some of the most surreal scenes ever put to film. These same gangsters were celebrated by the government as "free men" who didnt fit within the normal restrictions of society. They in turn live up to their "Relax and Rolex" mythology, their status is embodied by an iconic song with the most ironic reference you could possibly imagine, i'm still lost for words whenever i think about it.
We hear countless philosophical discussions between the men on their roles in society, and the things that no other men would or could do. Hollywood films changed the way these men perceived themselves. Their sadism was no longer part of their true identity, but part of an identity they copied and mythologised, creating a barrier against feeling remorse. Through his experiences re-enacting their horrific crimes, Congo thinks he understood what his victims had felt before they were killed.
One of the many shocking scenes in this film is the recreation of an attack upon a village in which families were burned out of their homes and butchered, an uncomfortable situation since it bordered on the exploitative not just from the gangsters but the filmmaker. This is the point where we witness evil at its most inhumane, where men with no guilt or conscience openly salivate over raping 14 year old girls and other unspeakable things. But something does change inside the minds of these gangster `actors'. A witness states "I never thought it would look so bad", who you would assume never shied away from committing murder in the past but somehow flinches upon a fictional re-creation.
We see the likes of Congo physically repulsed by their actions, but how long will this last when the whole country seems to be stunned into silence? This is the same country where the same gangsters appeared on a chat show to talk openly about the film and were met with cheers from the audience for the atrocities they committed. By the end of the film you assume its a film made in bad taste or a spoof, but depressingly this is Indonesia today and now. We all want to see justice, but self-doubt is all we see and all we may ever see.
Its going to be hard for any other film in 2013 to top the outstanding `The Act of Killing', revelatory documentary filmmaking which will often leave you speechless or want to hide behind your seat. Its one of those rare films which will stay in your mind long after you've seen it.
on 13 December 2014
A remarkable film which defies easy categorisation and feels genuinely unique. The film is not really a documentary but is a factual movie which contains much drama and at times it is profoundly disturbing. The central characters are revolting and it is hard to feel any sympathy or empathy for them yet the film is compelling. The film lacks the sort of expensive production values and effects of most movies yet despite feeling rather stripped back and even amateurish in places it grips the attention and is one of the most gripping movies I have seen for a long time. Hopefully it will make more people aware of the appalling events that took place in Indonesia in the 1960's and perhaps it may even cause some in Indonesia to consider those terrible events and the way they are remembered.
The blu ray is excellent, the picture is very sharp and crisp with very rich, vivid colours. The experience is very close to a cinematic experience on a good screen and it is well worth making the effort to get this version.
This is not the sort of movie everybody will enjoy and those looking for easy viewing or Hollywood blockbusters should look elsewhere, but I consider this to be a genuinely brilliant work. Very highly recommended, 5*.
on 9 August 2015
I watched it in london on a special screening with the director invited as guest star. I did not expect such a work of art and could not take off my eye off the screen despite the lenght and unsettling subject. What strikes at first sight is the choice not to interview the victims or show any picture of footage of the least knwon and maybe most bloody genocide ever after the Holocaust. The great idea is to use film and theatre to let some of the men who were responsible for that to re-stage what they did. It relies on their self-image of rock stars, which thry felt like being even during the tortures, abuses and murders they committed. They loved american pop culture and, in a sense, did not feel emotionally involved in what they did, like they were watching themselves on a screen. And so Oppenheimer uses that against them, and by doing so he also produce a deep and thoughtprovoking reflection on documentaries and fiction. Is this kind of storytelling less true than "objective" documentaries? It does not seem so. And while witnessing this completely surreal film, we get closer and closer to the dark side of humans and their most ferine aspects. So you get acknowledged about indonesian past and present, you feel a chill on your spine because it's still going on wlthough western people are not informed about it, and you see the effects of this brutal political experiment, that transformed Indonesia in a kind of absurd dictatorship where evil turned to look good and became socially accepted and even qualifying. You can watch both version (official and long one, nut I suggest the latter)
on 19 April 2015
I haven't watched the whole DVD as yet as it is subtitled all the way through, as far as I can tell, so I am watching it in stages. 'The Act of Killing' is an horrendous account of the brutality and slaughter carried out by the military during its overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, killing over a million. The main protagonists are the death squad leader, Anwar, and his friends. In the film they play themselves as the main protagonists, as well as the people they tortured and killed. An added obscenity is that rather than showing remorse for their actions they agreed to be in the film because they wanted to be 'stars'.
on 25 August 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'.
on 23 June 2014
One of the most brilliant and important documentary films in years.The real tragedy is that the brutal and sadistic murderers can boast about their actions and nothing can be legally done. Where else in a civilised world can people get away with such actions except in the still very corrupt country where it took place.
on 8 January 2014
From start to finish I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. I was totally transfixed by what I saw. Brutal and surreal at the same time, The Act of Killing recounts the genocide which took place in Indonesia in 1965 where, by some accounts, over a million ethnic Chinese and alleged communists were brutally massacred after a failed coup. The, now old, perpetrators reenact the murders with remorseless glee and are lauded as heroes on national TV. There's a particularly bizarre scene where these mass-murderers are interviewed, to applause and reverie, on Indonesia's equivalent of The One Show. Frightening stuff. Incredulous really. The film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival and afterwards someone said it was like watching the Nazis reenact The Holocaust. The director Joshua Oppenheimer said this comparison was wrong because, unlike the Nazis, the perpetrators of the 1965 mass genocide did not lose the war and are still in power. More frightening than any horror or thriller because this isn't fiction. This is reality.
This is an amazing film on a number of levels. It shines light on a terrible history that very few are aware of - the mass murder in the 1960s in Indonesia of around a million people (on the flimsy pretext that they were 'communists') by government employed gangsters (approved by both the USA and the UK). What is extraordinary in not only that the powers that ordered the killings are still in control, but the leaders of these hit squads are all too ready to boast about their past crimes. But more than boasting, the director encourages them to re-enact their murders on an increasingly elaborate cinematic level (the style comes from the gangsters themselves who modelled themselves on Hollywood villains).
The main protagonist, Anwar Congo, claims to have killed around 1000 people and what we see unfold is a man struggling (and perhaps failing) to come to terms with his own evil in ever more complex ways. Despite Congo at times appearing as a loving and very human grandfather, we never lose our sense of disgust for him and his gang, but we are forced to try to understand how it is that people can commit such crimes and continue to live with them and the myths they attempt to create to makes sense of it all. The film is, much of the time, very uncomfortable to watch, and it would be wrong if it was not.
The Act of Killing has had a major effect in Indonesia itself where those who lived through this period have been forced to confront it and the corruption that carries on today. Bizarre, surreal and disturbing, this is a film of huge importance.