The Act of Killing is a difficult watch. Throughout the entirety of the film as you hear horrible, sadistic words pour out of the mouths of the men, as they reenact heinous and disgusting crimes, as you see them celebrated by the masses, you can’t help but ask how this could have ever happened.
The documentary, like anything attached to the name Werner Herzog, is about the follies of societal pressures and the acute nature of hive minded mentality, the brutality that can be borne by an image or propaganda and how such evil was allowed to persevere in the end.
This unsettling documentary takes an up close and personal look at Medan, Indonesia, where Anwar Congo lives. In 1965 after the countries government had been overthrown by the military Anwar and his friends were promoted from small time gangsters who sold movie tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They aided the army in killing more than one million alleged communists. Anwar is one of the most notorious death squad leaders of his city and has killed hundreds of people. Anwar and his friends took pleasure in emulating their favorite gangster movies when they committed murder, seeing gangsters as free men who could do as they please. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asked Anwar and his group to reenact their killings for a movie and we watch as if amidst a fever dream as they play out scenarios without a second thought, taking enjoyment out of the memories.
This documentary is beautifully shot which juxtaposed with the bleak topic makes for an all together eerie output. Anwar and actors dance in front of a waterfall as an extra, playing a murdered communist, shakes Anwar’s hand and thanks him for killing him and sending him to heaven.
The movie does nothing to hide what these people did and why should it when they’re celebrated in their country as national heroes. Journalists and television personalities speak of the propaganda they helped, of how they would sway the society’s outlook on the victims, how they would twist the victims words. The death squad leaders easily recant the methods in which they murdered, how they tortured and raped and thought nothing of the men, women and children in their wake.
It’s a frightening film that showcases the very bottom of the barrel of depravity that appears numerous times throughout history-it just so happens that in this instance it’s all caught on tape.
It’s what a documentary should be. It exposes, enlightens, infuriates and it’s done with a stylistic flare that hopes to keep the viewers’ attention as well as inform them. There are unforgettable images in the film, including the hallucinogenic moments of faux filmmaking with the mass murderers, as well as unforgettable words that these men speak of so flippantly. It’s one of the best examples of what an innovative take on an old style can bring and one can only hope that more filmmakers will take Oppenheimer’s lead and go above and beyond the protocol of documentarian style filmmaking and become storytellers as well.
If there’s fault it would be the length that begins to drag during the middle but is brought back with a crescendo in the last third of the film. Some editing could have made it a more fluid transition but regardless, documentary fan or not, this is a film worth watching for the importance and of the message being disclosed.
The DVD is in stores now and offers not only the theatrical version but also a 166 minute Directors Cut, a 45 minute interview with director Oppenheimer on Democracy Now!, an audio commentary with Oppenheimer and executive producer Werner Herzog and more. Make sure to check it out this revelatory piece of documentary filmmaking.