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Breakthrough in Cinema: The Act of Killing

by Susi, 23 October 2012

still from joshua oppenheimer film the act of killing with executive producer werner herzog

Today, I discovered The Act of Killing, a newly released film that is of major significance in Indonesia’s evolution, and in the evolution of cinema itself.

Werner Herzog, who I consider the most impressive living filmmaker in the known universe, put it this way, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. It is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” He clearly meant what he said. He stepped in as the film’s executive producer, to enable its completion and release.

The Indonesian Human Rights Commision (Komnas HAM) issued this statement about the film: “If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than The Act of Killing. It is essential viewing for us all.”

The film is a documentary about present-day Indonesian gangsters who are ostensibly given the opportunity to create and appear in a movie that will depict their reminiscences of Indonesia’s mass killings during 1965-66 — a brutal episode in this nation’s history which is only just emerging now in public discourse. These grown-up Indonesian gangsters happen to be huge fans of Hollywood action movies, since the days when they were just jumped-up punks scalping tickets outside the local cinema. What’s more, they happen to have done a lot of killing themselves during the 1965-66 reign of carnage.

The Hollywood fantasies that filled their hearts and heads bled over into their own acts of killing in the 60s — lending a special meaning to the word “act” in the film’s title. And now, to their great glee, an American film director (Joshua Oppenheimer) is offering them a break from their “Relax and Rolex” gangster ambitions to make a real movie. And by gosh, they do.

All the while, unbeknownst to them, Oppenheimer has in fact set a velvet trap by inviting these men who are products of their thuggish society to make the movie of their dreams. And they swagger right into it, with excruciating enthusiasm. THAT phenomenon (not the “movie” they think they are making), is the content of Oppenheimer’s film. It’s a documentary about THAT. Sound complex? It isn’t so complex, actually. It’s quite simple. And simply brilliant.

Deeper truths are revealed in the process of documenting the making of a fictitious fiction film, than any normal documentary ever could reveal. The Act of Killing is deeply beautiful as a work of cinematic art, as well, even though it isn’t the film that its subjects think they are making. Every frame, shot, prop, set, costume, and meticulous stroke of editing, keeps your eyes nailed to the screen in awe. Shock and awe.

I urge you to visit the film’s website, view the trailer, and be alert to any opportunity to attend a screening. And also to ruminate on the following reviews discussing the film and its significance, which were published a few weeks ago:

The Guardian’s Review

The Jakarta Post’s Review

The most resonant words of the Jakarta Post review are these: “The Act of Killing unravels a tapestry of impunity that suggests Indonesia’s inability to accept responsibility for past crimes may be related to its inability to curb present lawlessness. It is a critique that is relevant to all countries where the powerful are not held accountable for the laws they break.”

This film can be seen as an apotheosis of postmodernism in cinema, built on the structure of a real life drama, which is contained within a faux fiction film project, which in turn is contained within a real documentary film called The Act of Killing. The Indonesian actors and crew, with some exceptions (whose names have been cloaked by the word “Anonymous” in the credits), believed they were participating in a rather kitschy action-fantasy-historical-drama movie with a completely different title and purpose. And they were. Plus something more.

At a time when the membranes dividing documentary, drama, reality and fantasy are so permeable that audiences now accept the blur of it all without even noticing (e.g. Sacha Baron Cohen, reality shows, innumerable works of contemporary art and performance, etc.), The Act of Killing does something even more complex, more revolutionary, more courageous, and more relevant than mere genre-bending. It is confusing, cathartic, disturbing, awe inspiring, horrifying, and paradigm shifting, not only in terms of pushing the frontiers of the whole idea of “movies”, but more importantly, in terms of transforming the way we apprehend the most entrenched, unparseable, and seemingly unsurmountable problems we face now in Indonesia. And pretty much everywhere else, in one form or another.

While the multi-headed serpents of “gangster capitalism” continue to torture our hearts and minds, we should ponder deeply these comments of Ariel Heryanto, TEMPO magazine’s historian and cultural critic:

The Act of Killing is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel.
It witnesses the bloody destruction of a foundation of this nation at the hands of Indonesians themselves. On top of a mountain of corpses, our fellow countrymen rolled out a red carpet for the growth of gangster capitalism and political Islam. In documenting this, The Act of Killing exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of this country’s notions of ‘patriotism’ and ‘justice.’ The film achieves all this thanks to the director’s genius and audacious choice of filmmaking method.”



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      • January 13, 2013

      Ciao Susi, thanks for sharing this while not many people write about it. And looks like you haven't been in this space for a while. Kind of miss your writing.

      • mlise
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      • March 9, 2014

      I agree that this is a profoundly moving film. What also made an impression on me was the proven links between modern Indonesian politicians and these killers who by and large are unaffected by their crimes, mlise

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