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The Act of Killing

March 13, 2014

The Act of Killing (2013)
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

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Synopsis: The veterans of Indonesia’s 1965-66 reign of terror are invited to recreate their acts of murder…

Review: I’ve always approached films about genocide with a hint of caution. There’s a natural in-built solemnity and gravitas to the content that can often obscure any reasonable discussion about the merits of the actual storytelling and narration itself (Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda are two classic cases in point).

With The Act of Killing – which has had critics fawning and falling over themselves to pay homage to its all-encompassing ‘genius’ – I fancy we have something of an intellectual parlour-game going on, and some commentators have been far too willing to buy into Joshua Oppenheimer’s rather obvious, singular conceit of exposing the feckless, violent triumphalism of the veteran Indonesian elite whose ethos was founded on the foul acts of brutality they perpetrated in 1965-66.

What you have here is a combination of performance art and academic thesis, and – controversial I know to go against the grain – but I’m never sure that Oppenheimer fully manages to justify it as a piece of three-dimensional cinema. Of course, anything that features meta-cinematic references (Oppenheimer invites the antagonists to create genre film imaginings of their brutal acts) is going to have certain critics salivating, but it’s still overly ‘intellectual’, cinematically inert, and more a sign of the filmmaker pushing their artist designs, rather than truly adding anything to the already screamingly obvious fact of these mens’ almost colossal moral philistinism.

Of course, the showmanship and vulgar pride of these men offered Oppenheimer the documentarian version of an ‘open goal’, and his tactic manages to clearly wheedle out the legacy of violence that persists in Indonesia to this day (these men and their ‘club’ are openly venerated by politicians and TV stations, and they can still instil fear when they parade around the streets and rural areas of their country).

The closing sequence is an undoubted false note for Oppenheimer though. Ogling on Anwar’s supposed growing sense of awareness and feelings of nausea over his acts, is a moral misstep, in that to end the film with a scene of (marginal) contrition seems a ploy designed to flatter the consciences of bourgeois audiences and validate Oppenheimer’s own mandate, when presumably if we’re watching a film designed to document the unfathomably evil acts that saw over 500,000 brutally slain – there can be no catharsis. I’d also suggest that Oppenheimer is naively taking Anwar too much at his own estimation of himself. If nothing else, the film has shown that Anwar especially and most of his cohorts, are master manipulators, crazily-unhinged drama queens, the most unreliable and unwholesome of narrators – so to take Anwar’s own dramatic projection of his gradual humanisation seems a much more murky and less conclusive process than Oppenheimer wants to tidily present us with. (March 2014)

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