The Act of Killing (which shares directorial credits amongst an anonymous Indonesian co-director, Christina Cynn, and Joshua Oppenheimer) is the breakout documentary from last year that had critics and viewers in unnerved awe.
The film follows the modern life of executioner and gangster Anwar Congo and his devoted associates. Together they recreate the horrors of the September 30 1965 Movement in which Indonesian National Armed Forces members assassinated six generals and overthrew the government, eventually killing over one million civilians (“communists”) in their wake. Winning many top ten lists as the Best Film of 2013, The Act of Killing has garnered worldwide attention.
The film opens with the image of a filthy, rustic-looking fish structure set in front of a violet skyline, with a blue body of water and green grass also in sight. Shortly thereafter, a group of dancers emerge from the aquatic building’s mouth and a hymn of sorts begins to play. The camera cuts to a blurry shot of an effervescent waterfall and slowly pans down, revealing Anwar and his loyal sidekick, gangster/paramilitary leader Herman Koto, dancing peacefully. Anwar is dressed in an all-black robe while Herman dons a vibrant baby blue dress (with frills on the cuffs and an equally flashy hat), with lots of blush and eye shadow to match.
Immediately afterwards, as the camera pans, women in flashy dress perform a meditative dance and a man is heard on a megaphone shouting, “Peace, happiness, smile! These are close-ups! Don’t let the camera catch you looking bad!”
It is later revealed that Anwar et al. were filming a ceremonial scene in which the gangster is praised for his war crimes and is awarded an honorary medal for his service. This opening scene sets the tone for what is to come: a bizarre, surreal and uncomfortable view at the reenactments of the killings Anwar was responsible for. They include musical numbers, film noir interrogation scenes and unexplainable Lynchian nightmare sequences, all of which have a B-movie quality.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times described some of the issues The Act of Killing raises in terms of whether allowing Anwar and his crew to reenact their exploits is a morally sound issue to document, and also the impact something like this has on the viewer and the cinema. “The horror of ‘The Act of Killing’ does not dissipate easily or yield to anything like clarity.
Some queasiness may linger at the thought of a Western filmmaker indulging the creative whims of mass murderers, exploiting both their guilelessness and the suffering of Indonesians who remain voiceless and invisible here. But this discomfort is an important indicator of just how complicated, how perverse, the cinematic pursuit of truth can be. This is not a movie that lets go of you easily.”
The Act of Killing was recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and remains one the most controversial documentary films to date.
Please join us for a free screening of the film at Market Hall (140 Charlotte Street) on Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 8pm. For more info, visit facebook.com/trentfilmsociety or email [email protected]