Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: "The Act of Killing" Delves into Mass Murder and Mass Murderers

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 44 (of 2014) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Act of Killing (2012)
Running time:  122 minutes (2 hours, 2 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  Joshua Oppenheimer with Christine Cynn and Anonymous
PRODUCERS:  Christine Cynn, Anne Kohncke,Signe Byrge Sorense, Joram ten Brink, Michael Uwemedimo, and Anonymous
CINEMATOGRAPHERS:  Carlos Arango De Montis, Lars Skree, and Anonymous
EDITORS:  Niels Pagh Andersen, Erik Andersson, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas Mestre, Janus Billeskov Jansen, and Mariko Montpetit
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Yapto Soerjosomarno, Adi Zulkadry, Soaduon Siregar, and Sakhyan Asmara

The Act of Killing is a 2012 documentary film from director Joshua Oppenheimer.  A co-production of Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom, the film concerns the Indonesian killings of 1965-66.  In The Act of Killing,  former Indonesian death-squad leaders reenact the mass-killings in which they participated by imitating their favorite Hollywood films.  Acclaimed filmmakers, Werner Herzog and Oscar-winner Errol Morris, are executive producers of this film.

The genesis of the story told by The Act of Killing began in Indonesia in October 1965.  There is an intra-military dispute that leads to a failed coup.  The army overthrows the government.  It then uses paramilitaries and gangsters to form death squads to lead an anti-communist purge of Indonesia.  Anyone opposed to the new government could be accused of being a communist, and that included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese (according the the film's foreword).

From 1965 to 1966, death squads killed people, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.  The Act of Killing's director, Joshua Oppenheimer, places the number of deaths between one to three million people.  An accurate count of the actual number of deaths may never be known.

Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn began researching the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 over a decade ago.  Eventually, interviews Oppenheimer conducted led him to Anwar Congo, who had been a “movie theater gangster,” selling black market movie theater tickets to popular Hollywood films showing in Indonesia.  Congo and his partner, Adi Zulkadry, were promoted from gangsters to leaders of one of the most powerful death squads in the North Sumatra region of Indonesia.

Invited by Oppenheimer, Congo and his friends, especially a man named Herman Koto, recount and reenact their experiences killing people for the cameras.  The idea is to turn their memories into a movie in which scenes of torture and murder mimic their favorite Hollywood films.  However, the more he recollects his murderous deeds, the more Anwar is haunted by nightmares and guilt.

The word “shocking” is overused, but The Act of Killing is shocking.  The matter-of-fact and nonchalant way in which the death squad killers recall their murderous work can be off-putting.  The film takes the concept of the banality of evil and makes it mind-numbing.  The Hollywood-style reenactments of interrogation, torture, and murder are a collision of the absurd and the god-awful that could lead the audience to eye-rolling... that is when they aren't being repulsed and infuriated.

The problem for The Act of Killing is that after an hour of watching, all these recollections of the acts of killing become tedious.  At just over two hours in length, The Act of Killing is about a half-hour too long.  Honestly, I can see why some people think of this as a great film.  I think it tells a hugely important story, and the result is harrowing and intense.  I think it is an exceptional film and an important document (as far as documentaries go), but is it truly great? ... not quite.

8 of 10

Friday, September 26, 2014

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2014 Academy Awards, USA:  1 nomination: “Best Documentary, Features” (Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen)

2014 BAFTA Awards:  1 win: “Best Documentary” (Joshua Oppenheimer); 1 nomination: “Best Film not in the English Language” (Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen)

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