Magazine article Variety

The Act of Killing

Magazine article Variety

The Act of Killing

Article excerpt

FILM TELLURIDE/TORONTO

The Act of Killing

Documentary - Denmark-Norway-UK.

A blood-boiling look at a crime whose perpetrators remain national heroes in their native Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" challenges those responsible for carrying out the executions of nearly a million convicted "communists" - technically, anyone whose views conflict with the current regime - with a chance to re-create scenes about the murders in whatever way they choose. The incendiary experiment is a bombshell, both for opening the world's eyes to Indonesia's recent bloody history and vis a vis the tradition of objective nonfiction filmmaking. Already a hot potato at its Telluride premiere, pic will stir controversy wherever it travels.

Documentary filmmakers are frequently criticized for being too judgmental toward their subjects. In Oppenheimer's case, the opposite may be true, as the helmer expresses no qualms about giving unrepentant killers the means to create their own propaganda What he and co-director Christine Cynn do reserve, however, is final cut, maintaining ultimate control over how to present both the re-enactment exercises and the extensive behind-the-scenes footage.

Leading with an apt quotation from Voltaire - "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets" - the doc unnervingly illustrates the way history is written by the victors. As explained in the press notes but not in the film, the directing duo initially attempted to make a more traditional reconciliation-focused docu featuring survivors' testimony about the mass murders carried out after Indonesia's 1965 revolution, but encountered too much pressure from authorities to follow through.

By shifting their attention to the perpetrators, however, the filmmakers found that the obstacles suddenly disappeared. In charismatic freelance killers Anwar Congo and Herman Koto - smalltime gangsters responsible for dispatching countless convicted communists back in the day - the pic finds two oddly compelling personalities sufficiently movie-obsessed to take the bait: Congo outfits himself like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation movie, while Koto takes the flamboyance one step farther, enthusiastically cross-dressing for the cameras. It's as if both men had been waiting their entire Uves for a film crew to discover them, and given the opportunity, they obligingly dig their own graves.

After a few scenes of straightforwardly observing the two petty thugs casting for extras in what will become the docu's gut-wrenching climax - the burning of a communist village that Congo and Koto boastfully intend to "make something that's even more sadistic than what you see in movies about Nazis" - The Act of Killing" begins to reveal the disturbing influence movies had on the most violent period of their life. In one scene, Congo explains how they would stumble directly from the cinema over to the paramilitary office, where they would perform the executions "happily," role-playing as their favorite Hollywood stars (the way American gangbangers presumably look to the antiheroes of "Scarface" and "The Sopranos" today).

The film unequivocally reveals how such entertainment threaded into the killers' own self-image, serving as both encouragement and coping mechanism for their actions. …

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