TIFF 2012: ‘The Act of Killing’ disturbs in its universal depiction of evil

The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Denmark, 2012

Director Joshua Oppenheimer went to great lengths to make The Act of Killing a living, breathing entity. Oppenheimer apparently spent six years working on the film in which some of his colleagues would have to remain anonymous given the current political climate in Indonesia. Co-produced by such names as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, The Act of Killing is both deeply introspective and equally maddening, echoing the works of said producers.

As documentaries go, there’s hardly anything to compare The Act of Killing with. The film follows the attempts of Oppenheimer to expose mass genocide and the players involved, those who still haven’t been held accountable some 47 years later. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends were promoted from low-level gangsters to bloodthirsty savages. Anwar would go on to kill more than 100 people just by himself, a number that pales in comparison to the 1 million alleged communists killed. Since ’65, Anwar and co. have been idolized as celebrities and have found themselves free of any moral accountability.

While there are some dull patches, The Act of Killing is more than absorbing in stretches. It’s at its most sobering when the killers agree to stage and recreate their killings under different genres of cinema: musicals, neo-noir gangster pics, and Westerns. They write their own scripts, they act, and even play the victims; it’s unfathomably funny and shocking. Indonesian youths are brought to tears as they witness and take part in the films, they’re then lauded for their patience and participation. Oppenheimer’s proximity to the material results in a sincere moment of reflection on Anwar’s part. He wishes to remain a hero, but begins to crumble under his collapsing conscience.

The film is about the nature of killing and what it takes to commit such a brutal act. As Oppenheimer’s film progresses, different facets are unveiled that call into question not only Indonesia’s corrupt society, but how the influences of the media and pop culture play such a large role in these heinous acts. Without directly stating it, Oppenheimer’s curiosity drives home the idea of evil as a communal commonality; making the documentary all the more urgent. Murder is treated as an afterthought, as slight and pleasing as a dance number – and none of us are immune from it.

– Ty Landis

Learn more about The Act of Killing at TIFF 2012 here and the Toronto International Film Festival here.

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