Review: 'Act of Killing' documents Indonesian death squads -
Published Friday, September 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:43 pm
Review: 'Act of Killing' documents Indonesian death squads

You have never seen anything like this.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer has made a documentary, in which he interviews the leaders of the Indonesian death squads, who were responsible, collectively, for the deaths of millions of Communists, leftists and ethnic Chinese in 1965 and 1966. But he doesn't just interview them. He has them re-enact their crimes and even invites them to write, perform and film skits dramatizing their murders.

The title is multi-layered, its literal meaning augmented by these men performing their murders on camera, but with yet another and more significant meaning creeping in, as well. The movie suggests that in order to distance themselves from the act of killing, these men thought of themselves as being in a movie. The men say as much — in fact, one of the gangsters, Anwar Congo, says he decided on his preferred method of killing, strangulation by wire, from watching Hollywood films. Congo, the main focus of the film, killed approximately 1,000 people in precisely this way.

Years later, these old men have different ways of dealing with their memories. All the men express a certain pride in what they did, but, while Congo complains of nightmares, one of his partners in crime is completely unfazed. He accepts that what he did was cruel, and he's just glad to have gotten away with murder. But then, if you expect mass murderers to be insightful and empathetic, you're more or less missing the point.

Throughout Oppenheimer plays back the tape and allows the men to see themselves. Congo watches himself on screen, demonstrating how to strangle someone, and you might expect him to show remorse or reflect on how others will react to such a spectacle. But no, he just thinks he shouldn't have worn white pants and decides that he should dye his hair for a more youthful look.

By getting these old gangsters excited about the prospect of making a movie, Oppenheimer gets greater access to their inner life. Instead of just holding it together for an interview, they are forced to go over these memories again and again. The result is a combination of drama therapy and accidental self-exposure — utterly bizarre, unexpected and valuable.

If only Oppenheimer were around for the Nuremberg trials.

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