Predominantly the purpose of a documentary is to influence or persuade and having seen “The Act of Killing”, I now feel privileged through circumstance not to have been born into the corrupt mess that is Indonesia. This exquisite and intelligent portrayal of “robbers with ties” institution: the ‘Pancasila Youth’ army was the only true shock at this year’s Oscars, implausibly beaten by “20 Feet from Stardom”.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer exerts true filmmaking bravery as he assimilates with former war executioners and gives them the opportunity to re-create their horrific experiences through any expressive medium such as film or interpretative dance. Their initial boyish enthusiasm comparing their potential blockbuster to the successes of “MGM or Paramount” gradually turns into unrelenting guilt as the horrors of the torturer’s actions return to haunt them. Footage of Pancasila Youth demonstrations includes their leader’s claims such as: “If we’re gangsters, I’m the biggest of them all” and omissions like these are all too telling for a liberal audience. The main focus is on Anwar Congo, a contract killer in 1965 and his childish re-enactments of the cruelty are truly alarming.
The extreme nature of the stories is merciless and yet with subtle editing and directorial insight, there is somehow good humour to be found in this dark documentary. Abrupt cuts to paramilitary leader Herman Koto dressed in ridiculous women’s clothing or his weighty stomach all provide light and shade, only emphasising the uncovered terrors. The audience are allowed access to backstage preparations for the film and the photo shoots, costume debates and prosthetic make up sessions are all strangely comical. Oppenheimer after winning a Bafta has since said he will never be allowed back “safely” into Indonesia and his “love letter” to the country where the motive “Relax and Rolex” is exercised by the fraudulent Pancasila Youth is unsurprisingly not welcome.
Despite the Academy Award snub, “The Act of Killing” is the complete package of hard-hitting yet warming storytelling. This documentary is the stepping stone for presenting to the world an infrequently discussed tragedy and from a cinematic stand point, it is emotionally unmissable. There are many memorable lines said by the charismatic killers and this exert epitomises their distressing past: “Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see power and sadism. We can do that.”
IMDB Rating: 8.2
My Rating: 8