THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
Landmark Sunshine Cinema
143 East Houston St. between First & Second Aves.
Opens Friday, July 19
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing, and unusual, films ever made about genocide. In 1965-66, as many as a million supposed communists and enemies of the state were killed in the aftermath of a military coup in Indonesia. Nearly fifty years later, many of the murderers are still living in the very neighborhoods where they committed the atrocities, openly boasting about what they did, being celebrated on television talk shows, and even being asked to run for public office. While making The Globalization Tapes in Indonesia in 2004, the Texas-born Oppenheimer met some of these self-described gangsters and, struck by their brash, bold attitudes, decided to create a different kind of documentary. In addition to following them around as they go bowling, play golf, sing, and dance, proudly showing off how happy their lives are, Oppenheimer offered them the opportunity to tell their story as if it were a Hollywood movie. The men, whose love of American noir and Westerns heavily influenced the stylized killings they perpetrated, loved the idea and began to restage torture and murder scenes in great detail for the camera, getting in period costumes, putting on makeup, going over script details, reviewing the dailies, and playing both the violent criminals and their victims. The leader is master executioner Anwar Congo, who is perhaps the only one haunted by his deeds; although on the surface he is proud of what he did, he is tormented by constant nightmares. Such is not the case for the others, who laugh as they go over the gory details, especially paramilitary leader Herman Koto, Congo’s protégé and a man seemingly without a conscience. Meanwhile, fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry wonders whether telling the truth will actually negatively impact their legendary status. “Human rights! All this talk about ‘human rights’ pisses me off,” Congo says in one scene. “Back then there was no human rights.” Oppenheimer also depicts how frighteningly powerful the three-million-strong, government-connected Pancasila Youth is, ready to fight for the very same things that led to the genocide in the first place. It’s hard to comprehend how these men continue to walk free, and one can argue whether Oppenheimer should indeed be giving them the platform that he does. Watching these gangsters — or “free men,” as they like to call themselves, since the Indonesian word for gangster is “preman,” derived from the Dutch “vrijman” — artistically re-create scenes of horrific violence is both illuminating and infuriating on multiple levels that will leave viewers angry and incredulous. After playing at last month’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, The Act of Killing opens July 19 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, with Oppenheimer on hand to discuss the film at the 7:30 and 10:30 screenings on July 19 and the 4:50, 7:30, and 10:30 shows on July 20.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Documentary Feature