At least half a million Indonesians were executed by government-approved thugs and paramilitaries after an attempted coup in 1965. Their unrepentant – sometimes celebrated – murderers perform gleefully for the cameras in “The Act of Killing,” one of the most surreal, head-tweaking, eye-opening documentaries of all time.
“Oh honey that sounds so serious! Can’t we just watch Bad Grandpa again 0n Netflix?”
OK – yeah, well it’s not a comedy. But it’s also not the documentary you might imagine. It is not earnest or boring or “broccoli.” That’s what it’s not. It’s a tad harder to describe what it is. I can really only tell you that it’s one of the most thrilling (if disturbing) movies ever, with none of the narrative predictability you might expect.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer asked one particularly charismatic perpetrator of the horror in Indonesia to act out what he’d done. And in more imaginative, cinematic scenes, to express the experience more, um, metaphorically. Then he finally gets in touch with what he’s done and feels really bad about it, right? Well, that would be the version of this story you’d expect. But there is very little here that meets any kind of normal film narrative. I wish I was smart enough to do a better job of describing what actually happens.
People keep asking me: Is it violent? Well, no, though there are some hairy reenactments. It’s actually more disturbing than that. We know how to process violence on screen; it is a familiar, if uncomfortable phenomenon. But what’s most disturbing in this film is not man’s inhumanity to man, but how far men must distance themselves from their own humanity in order to be inhumane. And there’s something about that that is harder to wash out of your psyche than even the most graphic violence.
After my friends and I saw “The Act of Killing,” we walked silent and wide-eyed to a nearby pub and then attempted to engage in some kind of meaningful conversation about it. But if description is elusive, so is deconstruction. This is a film that yanks the steering wheel right out of your hands and takes you for a ride. And we had just as much luck trying to control the discussion about it. The conversation took unnerving took twists and turns; diving into the micro then suddenly sailing into the macro, with no way to separate how the film was made with what its about – no matter how hard we tried. It seemed like quicksand…the more we squirmed the deeper we got.
And I must say, I’m having the same experience as I write this. So rather than try to write the definitive piece on the film, I’ll just pose one of the questions we spent the most time on: “Is this how the Nazis would have behaved if the Germans had won the war? Would Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of Auschwitz, be on late night TV telling witty stories about the gas chambers?”
And even closer to home: “Haven’t Americans behaved as abominably as the people in this film? Didn’t we perpetrate atrocities against the American Indian and then make heroic movies about the men who perpetrated those atrocities? Do we not still lionize the men who ‘tamed’ the west?”
And consider this: the horror in Indonesia took place less than 50 years ago. 100 years after the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, you could still enjoy an afternoon in an air-conditioned theater eating popcorn and watching John Wayne shoot Indians.
I have the sneaking suspicion that the need to talk about “The Act of Killing” is less about understanding and more needing to control how you feel about it. This is a story that throws you into a topsy-turrvy “1984″ world where evil is good, and it short-circuits the defense mechanism that hides difficult emotions behind a wall of intellectualization, sliding the experience of this film from your heart to your head – where it’s safe.
And so, I’ll stop writing about it now because I’m getting nowhere. I’ll just repeat that I think you should see this remarkable film. For another take, read Bob Mondello’s review HERE.
And here’s Madeline Brand’s fascinating interview with director Joshua Oppenheimer on KCRW’s To The Point.