Movie Review: 'The Act of Killing'
Published: Friday, February 21, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 22:02
“The Act of Killing” has a frighteningly powerful way of making you fall silent, so that all you can do is sit back, witness and ponder what you are seeing. The filmmaker of this multiple award-winning documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer, follows the death squad leaders of Indonesia in 1965, who replicate the gangster culture seen in American movies, and celebrate killings as a style of living. These death squad leaders, known as the Pancusita Youth, targeted communists and the Chinese population in Indonesia. Instead of simply capturing the violence in a more conventional documentary style, Oppenheimer devotes large parts of the film to showcasing the lasting psychological and social effect of this military regime.
Viewers learn about the perpetrators’ doings through Anwar, the founding father of the right-wing parliamentary group Permuda Pancasila that grew out of the death squads. The protagonist of the documentary, Anwar proceeds to re-enact the killings for Oppenheimer with his friends. It documents all of the events, their strategies of killing, propaganda and discourse, all of which they initially share with excitement and pride. To Anwar and his company, killing is an effortless activity rather than something violent, painful and inhuman. It’s impossible to be anything but shocked at the perpetrators’ unusual openness and oblivion to commonly accepted standards of humanity.
The audience might feel a little troubled by the filmmaker’s apparent lack of criticism against these death squad leaders. The camera follows Anwar to his private meetings with the governor where the two engage in bribery, to his visits to households, where he coerces residents to pay him. We hear his monologues denouncing democracy and praising the military regime — “the only path to true freedom,” in Anwar’s words. The scenes are shown in a matter-of-fact style, with no clear agenda to expose the regime’s evilness. In other words, the person behind the camera seems to have little motivation to do justice. Instead, the cameras follow Anwar and his friends, as situations set up by Oppenheimer lead them to face uncomfortable reflections on their actions.
At some point, the absence of justice and the passiveness of the filmmaker start to become unsettling. It is difficult to just sit back, shocked, staying nothing more than an observer. We see too much of the leaders’ arrogances, without any repentance.
However, this is part of the director’s message and what he is trying to express about reality. Little is known and discussed of these mass killings because the people of Indonesia are too afraid to speak. The passivity is thus the director’s subtle and cautious way of telling the hidden story. In fact, the criticism goes beyond Indonesia’s domestic role. When Oppenheimer accepted the 2014 BAFTA for best documentary, he accused the United Kingdom and United States as partly responsible for “participating in and ignoring” the crimes; after a screening for U.S. Congress members, he demanded that the United States publicly acknowledge its role in the atrocities.
Anwar and his followers, consumed by their own distorted values, entirely exposed themselves, telling the public their atrocious history. Oppenheimer thus communicates his political message by putting the perpetrators in a position where they have no way of defending or excusing themselves.
“The film allows the citizens to point out that the king is naked when they’ve been too afraid to say it the entire time,” Oppenheimer stated at a recent screening in D.C..
The “Act of Killing” is more than just a documentary of the Pancusita Youth’s evil deeds. The profundity lies in its attempts to understand these military leaders’ distorted values and depravity that led to the mass killings. The massacres were so severe it is fitting to coin the deeds a modern Holocaust.
Although the film shows Anwar making progress from not showing much humanity to displaying some epiphanies of regrets towards the end, the director still preserves his objective stance and restrains from imposing judgments.
“The ending is a question of justice. Is killing them or putting them all in the prison doing justice?” Oppenheimer said.
The movie leaves the last note not only to push us to think outside of shelter, to be more aware of traumas in the modern world, but also to think about the truth of justice. It is a poignant, shocking and painful-to-watch documentary that has fortunately been globally recognized as one of the most important pieces of film of the year.