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The Act of Killing

A blood-boiling look at a crime whose perpetrators remain national heroes in their native Indonesia, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” challenges those responsible for carrying out the executions of nearly a million convicted “communists” with a chance to re-create scenes about the murders in whatever way they choose. The incendiary experiment is a bombshell, both for opening the world’s eyes to Indonesia’s recent bloody history and the tradition of objective nonfiction filmmaking.

Documentary filmmakers are frequently criticized for being too judgmental toward their subjects. In Oppenheimer’s case, the opposite may be true, as the helmer expresses no qualms about giving unrepentant killers the means to create their own propaganda. What he and co-director Christine Cynn do reserve, however, is final cut, maintaining ultimate control over how to present the footage.

Leading with an apt quotation from Voltaire — “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets” — the doc unnervingly illustrates the way history is written by the victors. In charismatic freelance killers Anwar Congo and Herman Koto the pic finds two oddly compelling personalities sufficiently movie-obsessed to take the bait. It’s as if both men had been waiting their entire lives for a film crew to discover them, and given the opportunity, they obligingly dig their own graves.

After a few scenes of straightforwardly observing the two petty thugs casting for extras in what will become the docu’s gut-wrenching climax — the burning of a communist village that Congo and Koto boastfully intend to “make something that’s even more sadistic than what what you see in movies about Nazis” — “The Act of Killing” begins to reveal the disturbing influence movies had on the most violent period of their life. In one scene, Congo explains how they would stumble directly from the cinema over to the paramilitary office, where they would perform the executions “happily,” role-playing as their favorite Hollywood stars. Now, Congo and Koto return the favor, candidly describing their past rapes and murders, and even going so far as to demonstrate the most effective way to kill without spilling too much blood.

The directors pause on occasion to observe their subjects’ reactions to periodic work-in-progress screenings, and at one such opportunity, Congo invites his grandchildren to watch the gory depiction of his past exploits.

Never before has anyone made a documentary like The Act of Killing. Essential and enraging, “The Act of Killing” is a film that begs to be seen, then never watched again.
- Peter Debruge, Variety

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The Act of Killing

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