The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)

What's it about? In 1965, the Indonesian government recruited small-time gangsters to death squads to help carry out the killing of more than one million alleged communists and ethnic Chinese in the country. In this documentary, several of these executioners, who remain free men as the same government have remained in power ever since, happily - happily! - agreed to re-create their experience of the mass killings for the movies. It is not comfortable viewing.

Is it any good? Good might be the wrong word here. What would be a better word? Distressing? Frightening? Unbe-fucking-lievable? Any of these are apt, but they don't really sum up the full surreal horror of certain sequences in this film. Here we see mass murderers freely - and happily - reminisce about some awful crimes, laughing as they dress up, wear make-up and try to mimic the style of the violent cinema influences of their youth in depicting their crimes. In one scene a fat gangster in garish drag saws the head of a mannequin. In another, a man laughs/cries his way through his childhood recollection of his stepfather's murder, whilst his friends sit around grinning and nodding approval. It might be blackly funny, if it weren't so entirely ghastly. Of course, tackling such a subject in such a manner invites all sort of criticism about the value of such an exercise - what exactly is it trying to do? Bring the killers depicted to justice? Bring the story to a wider audience? Raise the documentary to another level of meta-film? Question the impact of violence in film? Whet the public appetite for extreme 'reality' TV? All of the above? Or perhaps the key lies in the fact that these men, only through the fake act of killing, gradually see their real acts of killing for the sadistic murders that they were, as their levity slowly gives way to a realization that what they did might have been wrong, a realization which will presumably end up haunting at least some of them until their dying day. And, given the things they had done, I can't say I'm that sorry about that. Perhaps it is fitting that such a sickening subject ends with a man literally sickened by the memory of the crimes he has committed. A challenging and chilling film about the evil that men do.

I don't trust you. What do others think? It has generally side-swiped people on the festival circuit, who dropped their jaws accordingly at the astonishing blurred lines between fiction and reality onscreen. When documentarians like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris say a film is the most frightening they've seen in years, it should make you sit up a little. Naturally, it raised all sorts of head-shaking, hand-wringing discussion about justice, morality and cultural differences. In Indonesia, people who have managed to see it have been slow to accept what it presents, raising more thought-provoking questions about how a people can be 'educated' on what is 'right' and 'wrong' in the history of their country. However, an unsettling little snippet from one particularly unrepentant killer sticks in the mind, as he defends his position by pointing to other countries and conflicts, noting that 'war crimes are defined by the winners'. And that little piece of perspective makes you realize that the 'act of killing' seems as natural a human process as breathing. 

What does the Fonz think? Good, but awful

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