‘The Act of Killing’ is a gut-wrenching 2 hours of cinema
Starting this past weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is one of the most controversial documentaries of the year, “The Act of Killing”. The film follows around a group of killers, that have somehow become revered figures in their native Indonesia, as they relate their stories of death and mayhem with grins and smiles upon their faces as hey reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when they were responsible for the death of thousands.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
After the 1965 military coup against the Sukarno government, Indonesia was overrun by marauding bands of paramilitaries who indulged in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists. These victims included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals and left behind a horrifying record of atrocities that, ironically, has enshrined these killers in their nation’s history as patriotic heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his collaborators provocatively explore this dark chapter of Indonesia’s history by enlisting a group of former paramilitaries to re-enact their crimes in the style of the Hollywood films that they love. Gleefully recreating some of the many murders they have committed with the aid of sets, costumes and pyrotechnics, the proud band of killers exhibits a fixation on style over substance — as well as an utter lack of remorse over their actions — that is both monstrous and mesmerizing.
The Act of Killing is not an easy film to watch. We are taken through a methodically paced, yet extremely detailed, report on these men and the atrocities they hold so dear that in many ways is a series of worsening stories that decay our faith in humanity. Starting with step by step depictions of decapitations and other slaughters, the film progresses to brutal re-enactments of actual massacres that brutalize their ‘actors’ as much as the original victims. Add in nonchalant comments about raping 14 year old girls and an appearance on a talk show that is downright horrifying, as the crowd cheers and applauds their tales of genocide, The Act of Killing takes on a very surreal and unconscionable effect.
The film shows that these gangsters have pretty much a free reign over all of the neighbourhoods and markets in Indonesia, as we follow a failed election campaign from one of the killers and also see the group shake down market owners for money. Even government officials propagate this false claim that the term gangster means ‘free men’ and how their society needs these free men to keep everyone in check. The level of propaganda and falsehoods shown here gives Nazi Germany at its height a run for its money. The ludicrous finale of the gangster’s film involves the leader receiving a medal for his actions from the most preposterous of sources, the ultimate desecration of the legacy of people that were snuffed out in a lifetime of murder.
By the time the ending of The Act of Killing arrives and we see the first glimpses of remorse in almost 2 hours of film, we already know that it will be a fleeting and short lived epiphany as the belief that they did nothing wrong has been too deeply engrained. As the final credits role we are left drained and finally allowed to breathe as the scrolls of anonymous fly by from people who want no one to know they worked on the gangster`s film within the film. But the audience is no longer anonymous, or oblivious to the real villains they have just met. A brutal film to watch, The Act of Killing may also be essential viewing to make sure the world does not let this happen again.
Till Next Time
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