REVIEW: The Act of Killing

30 07 2013

The Act of KillingRecently in a film class, a discussion arose about disturbing film scenes.  The conversation kept coming back to the rape scene in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many people found uncomfortable and hard to watch.  Someone interjected as the voice of reason and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the point.  It’s rape, a horrible act – you aren’t supposed to feel comfortable!”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” tackles another tough subject, one affecting societies rather than individuals: genocide.  Unbeknownst to many (but perhaps surprising to few), the new Indonesian military government commissioned gangsters and paramilitary groups to exterminate dreaded communists in 1965.  As you can imagine, their targets grew in scope beyond avowed Marxists, and the term “communist” came to signify anyone that they consider to be their opposition.  By the next year, they had killed over a million people.

Believe it or not, these perpetrators have not been tried for war crimes.  They proudly walk the streets of Indonesia, boasting of their murders and willing to simulate their violent acts.  Documentarian Oppenheimer crafts an unconventional film around these men by asking them to film reenactments of how they killed and what it felt like.

What ensues in “The Act of Killing” is nothing short of a crash course on the social construction of morality.  Men such as Anwar Congo have a level of impunity in Indonesia because their society does not deem such acts as wrong.  If you’ve ever thought a cinematic gangster was cool, prepare to feel rather shameful when Congo and his band of gangsters talk about how they felt inspired and empowered by films like “The Godfather.”

At times, though, the film fixates a little too strongly on these cultural differences.  The result is a rather dark comedy that happens to end on a harrowing note to drive home the horror of these acts.  While this conclusion (that I dare not spoil) is effective on perhaps the most collective of gut-levels, I didn’t leave feeling all that unsettled or discomforted.  What I’ll remember is that “The Act of Killing” was the most blackly humorous documentary I’ve seen since “Inside Job.”  That’s an accomplishment, to be sure, but not quite the one I think Oppenheimer was aiming for.  B2halfstars



One response

23 09 2015
This Month in Mormon Literature, September 2015 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

[…] is hopefull the closest thing the United States could ever produce to an equivalent of “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s frightening documentary exposé on the effects of impunity in Indonesian […]

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