Wyndham Hacket Pain reviews the psychologically complex The Act of Killing, which played at the Bloomsbury Theatre
Films about historical atrocities, whether documentaries or not, usually embrace and follow the victims. This is not the case in The Act of Killing, where the focus is clearly on the perpetrators. The people that director Joshua Oppenheimer is interested in are not the innocent or the brave, but instead the monstrous and the immoral. Few films have ever tried to delve so deep into the minds and motives of the guilty, and to show in such detail the face of evil.
Like many, I was unaware of the scale and horrors of the 1960s Indonesian genocide until watching The Act of Killing. With over half a million killed, with some claiming up to 2.5 million, at the hands of gangsters and death squads, it remains one of the most overlooked atrocities within human history.
The film follows Anwar Congo, a man who was part of one of these death squads. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has created one of the most fascinating characters in cinema. Except, he has not been created. His actions and horrific past are both real. He boasts of killing over a thousand communists and shows no remorse. Film has shown many captivating psychopaths before, whether it is Norman Bates in Psycho or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, but none of them have captured this quality with so such intensity.
The re-enactment scenes may on the surface appear a bit of a gimmick. The idea of having these horrific events played out in American mafia attire seems preposterous. It may appear even more absurd to have these murderers compare themselves to John Wayne and Al Pacino. Yet these re-enactments seems too much for some of the participants, and behind the extravagant absurdity lies some of the film’s most emotionally resonant moments.
The film questions the divide between fantasy and reality. Generally surreal scenes open and close the film, and act as a kind of catharsis from the brutal reality that lies within. With the government condoning the actions of Anwar it would be easy for him to believe that he himself is a hero. Indeed this is his public persona, but behind it lies sleepless nights and a lifestyle designed to help him forget his murderous ways. Oppenheimer is perhaps the first person to confront Anwar and his actions.
The film has both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as executive producers. They may come from opposite ends of the documentary universe but the combinations seems rather apt. Herzog’s pondering of nature and Morris’ political rigor seem to be acting in harmony within the film. There are moments where a Werner Herzog voice over or Errol Morris interrogation would both feel suitable.
The idea of a Western director indulging the creative whims of mass murderers, exploiting both their guilelessness and the suffering of the Indonesian people, may lead to The Act of Killing being a difficult film to watch. It is this discomfort, however, that makes it so great. It shows how perverse the cinematic pursuit for truth can be and how disturbing these findings often are.
Featured image credit: The Verge