In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist, leading to the direct deaths of over one million "communists" who in many cases were simple farmers or union members. To orchestrate these mass killings, The army used paramilitaries and gangsters, men who are still in power to this day. Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is a documentary that challenges these former Indonesian death squad leaders to tell their stories, even re-enacting them in any cinematic genre they wish, including gangster films and lavish musical numbers. As the documentary unfolds it becomes clear that the men's re-enactments, while fascinating, aren't what the movies is about, with the everyday interaction and conversations between the death squad leaders capturing something incredibly unique in the world. Unlike other nations where perpetrators of genocide have been brought to some form of justice, these men have stayed in power, are praised as heroes, even becoming role models for thousands upon thousands of youth paramilitaries. The emotional detachment these men have from the heinous acts they've committed is incredibly disturbing and we see how they morally justify their actions through denial. The details which the men reveal are sombering, like how they always wore very dark clothing, so the blood of their victims would not be as evident. The Act of Killing is full of profound discussions about morality, the difference between right and wrong, and it's sure to raise much debate and controversy from those that have seen the film. One of the more interesting discussions revolves around how America as a culture celebrates violence and with our most common export, movies, we spread this celebration across the world. The film certainly doesn't make any outlandish claims about films cause violence but it certainly supports the notion that to the simple or naive-minded individuals it can make violence much easier. While all of this is fascinating, where the film becomes a masterpiece is the unexpected journey one of the Death squad leader goes through. When we first meet this man he talks about how alcohol, cannabis, and ecstasy were ways he would relax, mentioning how he often wakes up in the middle of the night form nightmares. While it would seem obvious that he is haunted by his heinous acts, the man is oblivious to the connection, with one of his fellow associates even explaining to him it's nothing but a nerve disturbance in which "you can get vitamins for". As the film unfolds, and this man creates his own cinematic re-telling of his crimes, he begins to slowly grasp the difference between the make-believe of films and reality. This leads to an ending that's quite frankly devastating, seeing this man finally realize the severity of the crimes he has committed. Seeing this man fall apart both physically and mentally, vomiting at the realization is an incredibly resonant moment and something I will never forget. Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is a powerful, surreal, and terrifying film that challenges the viewer's perceptions in more ways than one.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.