Friday, September 6, 2013

The Act of Killing

In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer has assembled a group of thugs who were instrumental in the murder of over one million suspected Communists when the Sukarno government was overthrown in l965. It’s a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in reverse, to the extent that the perpetrators proudly boast about their crimes. Anwar Congo and Herman Koto who play themselves in the film would also be wonderful casting choices for an Indonesian production of The Threepenny Opera, (despite the fact that Congo’s face bears a disconcerting resemblance to one of the most peaceful politicians of all time, Nelson Mandela). These goons freely admit the Communists weren’t the cruel ones and proceed to demonstrate their torture techniques, one of which is garroting with a wire, preferred because there’s nothing the victim can do to loosen the pressure, even in the unlikely case that his or her hands were free. Gangster, Congo explains means free man and he is revered as a force behind the still feared paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila Youth, which is still active today. Where the provenance of terrorism usually comes from training camps, Congo and Soto are in love with Hollywood and claim to have learned their sadism from Brando, Pacino and John Wayne. Imagine movie characters from Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs (with its famed torture scene) or Pulp Fiction running a real country and you get some insight into The Act of Killing. Is it a documentary? Hard to say. In fact, it’s a reenactment and as such it’s easy to see Congo and Koto would be willing to cooperate. By reenacting atrocities so brazenly, Oppenheimer’s cast are sending out a message. Yet there are times when the film is gets ahead of itself. A group of villagers playing their parts—as the victims or rape and torture—can’t stop crying even after their scene ends and when Congo plays the subject of an interrogation, who is accused of trying to ban Hollywood films, he seems to be caught up short. He has to stop. As brazen as he is, he’s the one character who admits to being haunted by nightmares. He’s also plainly capable of compartmentalizing with the help of alcohol, marijuana and ecstasy. The Act of Killing is a little like using the Nuremberg trials as a casting couch for The Producers. Say instead of sentencing Goring, Bormann or Hess you offered to make them film stars. Oppenheimer has inadvertently created a new form which we might term real cinema verite. He isn’t using non actors to play roles, as in The Battle of Algiers. He’s using real war criminals who still inspire fear. Read the film’s final credit sequence (as the director instructs in his prologue to the film). Half of the names read ‘anonymous.”

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