I have so much to say about this film, I don’t even know where to begin. I have seen many unsettling documentaries, but this one transcends the genre in a way I can not articulate yet. So excuse my attempt here, I am merely trying to collect my thoughts.
If you have seen Twelve Years a Slave then you know the feeling I am about to describe. The funeral like procession you had when you walked out of the theater. No words, head hung low struggling for the right words to utter after the work you just experienced. I sat in silence through the credits. It is my pick for the Oscars. One of the strongest directed films. My love for the work was overshadowed by my experience of it. Twelve Years a Slave is painful. It hurts to watch. It is an important experience. It is importance to see the dark side of our human nature.
Enter The Act of Killing. Imagine asking a war criminal, known for aiding in the genocide of millions to make a film that reenacted his crimes and then documented the process. For humor sake since i have no smarter comparison, if Hitler made an art film.
Joshua Oppenhimer originally sent out to make a documentary about the victims of the communist purging in Indonesia in 1965. In seeking out survivor stories, he failed in getting clearance and the support he needed. He then directed his cameras to the perpetrators. Finding it easier to document the “heroes” of the country, the youth gang that aided the government in the extermination.
I know very little about this period in history. In fact it was complete news to me. I had to look it up. Tucked away under a victory over communism at the height of the cold war, is one of the largest mass murders of our history. I will just let that little nugget sit with you for a moment. It happened in Indonesia, executed by the government through gangs in 1965. Before human rights violations was international law. I sometimes forget that the human rights movements became the laws as we know them today within my lifetime. A fact that the perpetrators in the film repeat. Perspective.
The dynamics of this documentary are compelling and utterly terrifying. This is by no small device from the filmmakers. The idea is brilliant. The images that come out of the “film” within the film create so much internal conflict with the audience that I am surprised this isn’t being talked about more widely.
Unlike the “shock doc craze,” The Cove or Blackfish, documentaries made to shock people into action by sharing graphic images, The Act of Killing opens the door for a unique peek into the minds of men who committed murder without ever showing you the evidence.
They offer up their stories like national heroes. Justifying their actions in eerily similar ways to recent events. Glorifying their actions. They are not much different then us. Think about it. Zero Dark Thirty, Any WW II movie made about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Dessert Storm, The War on Terror. Before you go pointing fingers and think, “What Monsters!” Remember that our history is littered with these acts. The sooner we start looking at them thoughtfully from a new perspective with compassion for all parties the better.
That is what this film offers us. A chance to see what happens from the other side. This is often the theme of any project Werner Herztog touches. Into the Abyss, argues for the humanity of our criminals while positioning the pain of the victims together. Creating an unsettling experience. One that leaves the audience with more questions then answers. It is a complex argument for human rights.
What is justice?
There are two moments in The Act of Killing that will haunt my dreams. The first is the “scene” where the group is reenacting a torture sequence. The perpetrators are dressed in silly costumes and make-up. They are cartoons of themselves discussing the scene at hand. They are concerned about making sure they tell the truth even if it means finally admitting that the people they executed were less brutal then they are. In an act of bravery the actor playing the “communist” offers up the story of his stepfather as an idea for a scene to add realism. He then begins to tell this heart wrenching story of how his stepfather was murdered and how he was witness to it at ten years old. The group brushes off the story, it was too uncomfortable for them to handle. The “actor” side steps the interaction to avoid conflict and they all move on to filming the scene. During which, the actor is then “tortured.” I clutched my heart through the whole thing. For the actor, this was not just a play. This was real. The group likens their behavior to Guantanamo Bay, saying that during the war on terror it was justified for Americans to torture their captives. Now that the fear of 9/11 has subsided, this behavior is frowned upon. “How is that any different then us?” he says.
The second is the final scene in which our main protagonist pulls back his facade and takes us to the site where he committed murders. He finally shows vulnerability. He goes into shock on camera. The full weight of his actions hitting him. He then walks out and the film fades to black.
This film is a bold statement. The device of the film within a film works in ways I don’t think our director even dreamed up. In any respect it will leave you clutching you heart with more questions then answers. That same upset, funeral like procession from the theater as 12YAS is how I felt after watching this one. Right now this is my front runner for best documentary. It is on Netflix. Be brave and watch it.