The Act of Killing Review

act-of-killing-poster           The opening quote from French philosopher Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets” is a clear indication of the film’s basic premise as well as the challenging concepts at the heart of film. Not easy to watch, analyse or even review, ‘The Act of Killing’ is something of a cinematic enigma. While it follows a relatively straightforward documentary approach, with little atypical or innovative in regards to the genre, but what does make it stand out is its truly intriguing topic at the centre of its story.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer has chosen the Indonesian genocides of 1965-66 as the setting for his feature, with a right wing uprising taking power there was a merciless persecution of the country’s communists, notably Chinese immigrants. Fifty years on and the same people are in power with a three million strong paramilitary organisation Pemuda (Youth) Pancasila a significant component of the regime. Key original members and mass murdering war criminals Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, amongst others, are the films central characters as they are asked to recreate their actions in the barbaric 1966 genocide. The twist is the recreation is in film form, crafted in the protagonist’s vision, leaving them in complete control of both films’ directions. With the original coup’s regime running the country, war criminals like Anwar are considered heroes of the cause against communism- applauded rather deplored for actions that were as horrendous as the notorious Gestapo and KGB.

It’s fascinating viewing throughout, seeing these supposed monsters in a completely different light. Now much older, they’re blasé about their violent past- palming it off through dance and drink or retelling their gruesome tale as if they were humours anecdotes. Clearly up until now these men, notably Anwar who takes centre stage, haven’t been challenged about the moral implications of their sordid past, and their reactions show. As they relive their youth by telling the camera how they killed men with razor wire, as well as through their increasingly surreal, yet harrowingly accurate, film it soon becomes apparent that the past can’t be brushed aside so easily. As closeted emotions rise to the fore and past horrors are relived through the eyes of the victim for the first time aspects of remorse, contemplation and understanding, regarding the moral uncertainty of murder, cloud Anwar’s thoughts.

What makes the film hard to judge or review is in that its concepts are so far beyond simply labelling good or bad, right or wrong, coupled with the fact the drama and plot are all organically produced by these real life villains. The film itself is monumental, emotional, harrowing, and even incomprehensible but shocking at its core- the audience at the showing were sat in stunned silence when the lights sparked on at the end. Oppenheimer has provided the launching pad, for which he must be praised, but its Anwar and his accomplices who are the real stars of both films as we pry into their inner thoughts to understand the effects murdering another human being, something very few of us understand,  have on us and our mental state.

So incomprehensible and removed from reality are the film’s stars that the average cinema goer will be baffled by their bizarre behaviour. Anwar constantly displays his warped morale outlook on life as he berates his grandchildren for injuring an innocent duck, when he showed no remorse taking a humans life. Another scene where Anwar watches some of his film’s murder recreations shows his dismay at not what he did, but the fact he is wearing white trousers which wouldn’t be historically accurate for the film. Utter madness.

The film’s strongest, most deeply affecting scenes are the ones that are equally unsettling. Superbly awful while fittingly reflective, the film’s conclusion lingers letting the many moral questions raised throughout tick over in the audiences’ mind. The unscripted nature of the narrative makes for some perfect, natural moments- Anwar’s neighbour jokingly tells the ‘funny story’ about how the murdering militia killed his step-father, leaving him to bury him like a goat. It’s a horrendous story told as if it were a funny little moment, the awkward madness of it summarises the strangely surreal narrative- a prime example of real life being stranger than fiction.

To review ‘The Act of Killing’ in terms of traditional cinematic convention would be useless, the real significance and strength of the film lies in the themes, messages an issues it raises. People have a fascination with the dark side of humanity (the continued obsession with the Holocaust the most glaring example) and revel in thanatourism, Oppenheimer’s documentary plays on this. It’s fascinating to delve into the mind of a serial killer, to try, futilely, to understand why they did such horrid things as well as how they deal with the aftermath. The fact we feel sympathy for Anwar, a man who strangled a 1000 men to death, is an amazing feat of the film, a testament to its power as story. Beautiful at times but mainly horrifying, ‘The Act of Killing’ is one of the most powerful films made in recent times, it’s a journey we all secretly want to go on, but to watch someone else do it for us is even better- Anwar’s tortuous existence is a documentary cinema at its finest.

 9/10- Delving Deep Into The Dark Side of Humanity