9. The Act of Killing
Few filmmakers have ever looked evil in the eye as unflinchingly as director Joshua Oppenheimer does in The Act of Killing, and through one of the most unsettling and ingenious structures ever conceived of in documentary form, Oppenheimer forces the eye of evil to look back upon itself, to horrifying and transfixing results. Focusing on the now old men who were once lead executors in the Indonesian anti-communist killings of 1965-66 – which resulted in the deaths of over half a million people – The Act of Killing begins as a study into the banality of evil, watching mass murderers go about their day in a country where they live not only with impunity, but as celebrities free to boast about what they have done.
But when Oppenheimer gives these men the opportunity to recreate the killings, from their own perspective, as a series of film scenes, each based in a different genre ranging from detective noir to musical, The Act of Killing evolves into something far more strange, potent, and revealing. The killers say they took inspiration from Hollywood movies – here is the proof, but here also is a blistering look at how art, even art made by murderers, reveals the innermost depths of the human soul, laying every perception and fallacy one carries bare whether one intends to do so or not.
For the film’s main subject, Anwar Congo, the increasingly surreal and disturbing dramatizations become a psychological deconstruction of his own mind and soul, and by the time the film ends, it is possible he is a different, more thoroughly haunted man than the one we met at the film’s beginning. It is possible no film this year was more challenging and provocative, and there is no doubt that in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer has created a new historic benchmark for documentary film, one that will be celebrated and dissected for decades to come.
The Act of Killing is not currently playing in theatres, but will arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray January 7th.
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