Saturday, January 4, 2014

Film Review: Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing

Let me attempt to put a more US audience-tested face on this whole shebang.  Try to imagine the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, still being alive, and reenacting their crimes against humanity for a documentarian's camera, and for all to see.  Now imagine the terrorist and despot actually starring in these reenactments, as both victim and victimizer.  Now try to imagine a few elaborate musical numbers being thrown in, to ironically liven things up a bit.  If you can indeed imagine such a beast, then you too can imagine the alluring yet harrowing documentary, The Act of Killing.  The only difference here is that we are not in the caves of Afghanistan or the airways of September 11th, nor are we in the spider-holes  and war-ravaged streets of Bagdad. 

Here we find ourselves in the paramilitaristic land of modern day Indonesia.  Following the failed coup of 1965, gangsters like Anwar Congo, to whom the moniker of main antagonist-cum-protagonist can be applied here, were put in charge of government-sanctioned death squads.  These death squads of 1965-66 have evolved into a political party that has since run the country with the proverbial iron fist.  And these crimes (people being dragged from their homes, tortured, executed, homes burned to the ground in a firestorm of pseudo-righteousness) are still all too real, and now being relived by those who perpetrated them, all for the camera's roving, unceasing Kino-eye.  And I gotta tell ya, as disturbing as many of these war crimes are, it is really hard to not be riveted by a strange fascination for the things being explained and reenacted up on the screen.

The film opens with a chorus line of pink clad dancers slowly sliding their way out of the mouth of an enormous fish sculpture (as seen on the film's poster) and quickly moves from campesque farce to brutal reality.  The main brunt of the film follows the aforementioned Congo around as he, often swelling with pride as he wears the most Cheshire of grins, matter-of-factly tells of his exploits as state executioner - a position where he claims to have murdered over 1000 people, all in the name of the anti-communist Indonesian government.  Congo and the camera are visited by other fellow death squaders, as they are heralded and praised as great people of Indonesia.  The final act of the film, as we delve deeper into these repugnant crimes, and as Congo begins questioning what he has done in life, the film becomes more and more surreal and more and more bizarre in its uniquely stylized narrative.  This film really is a strange beast, unlike any film this critic has ever experienced. It is also one of those films one would be remiss not to say it is a certain must see.

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