Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Act of Killing - 4 stars

We've all seen documentaries about mass murder and genocide.  I can think of any number of movies about the Holocaust, or Rwanda, or the Rape of Nanking.  But usually these movies involve other people talking about the atrocities that were committed.  Usually you don't hear the murderers themselves talk about the things they did, why they did them,and how they felt.  That's what makes this movie unique. 

In 1965, there was an anti-communist purge in Indonesia.  Over 500,000 people were killed, either because they were suspected of being communist, or for simply being Chinese.  Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews many of the people who carried out the murders, focusing mostly on Anwar Congo. 

In order to get them to open up about the things they did, he invites them to re-create the killings as movies.  They can use whatever genre they prefer.  One sequence is filmed as a gangster movie from the 30s, another looks like a Bollywood musical.  But the murderers themselves are the directors in these scenes.  And this produces something really profound. 

At first, Anwar and his friends brag about the killings.  Anwar is happy to show the place where the executions took place, and he demonstrates how he would strangle people with piano wire.  Later when he is playing the part of a victim himself, he is profoundly disturbed.  It seems like this is the first time he has actually thought about what it was like for his victims.  He asks the director if the horror the he is feeling is simliar to what his victims experienced.  And Oppenheimer says no, what they felt was much worse.  You're only making a movie.  The actual people knew they were going to die.

This is a very powerful movie that stays with you.  It raises some interesting questions about the nature of evil, and how people can live with themselves after committing horrible acts.  One of the killers says that he feels no guilt or shame because he was never prosecuted.  The US supported their anti-communist purge, he says, and no one has ever tried to arrest him or bring him to trial.  Another killer, who is still a military youth leader in Indonesia, casually reminisces about burning villages and raping young girls.  He tells these stories with the same inflection as you would recount your last vacation.  It's really chilling.

When asked whether any of the victims' children have ever wanted to take revenge, Congo and his friends explain that that would never happen because they (the children) would be too afraid to speak up.  They also imply that if they ever tried, those people would be killed also.  The people who run the country are like gangsters.  In one scene, a government agent is walking through a market demanding money from various merchants.  When Congo goes on a talk show to talk about the movie they are making, it is portrayed as a celebration of their anti-communist struggles. 

This movie may help bring attention to what happened in Indonesia.  There have been reports that some of the movie's subjects claim they were tricked and lied to by the filmmakers.  But supposedly Anwar Congo said that the movie is exactly what he expected it to be.  It will be interesting to see if anything happens as a result of this movie.  It would be nice to see the perpetrators finally brought to justice. 

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