November 28, 2015


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Startling documentary dramatizes genocide

In our heads, every one of us is the star of our own movie.

This absolutely astonishing documentary employs that common narcissism to subversive effect by examining the memories of some old men who participated in a massacre of some half a million people in Indonesia in 1965-66.

A musical number in The Act of Killing.

A musical number in The Act of Killing.

The responsibility for what was called a Communist purge may have rested with the military dictatorship of General Suharto, but the actual murders were perpetrated in large numbers by "gangsters." Indonesia's underworld elements readily and even gleefully killed real Communists, intellectuals and Chinese nationals, often taking their victims' property for themselves in the process.

As we learn from the killers themselves, the murders were cruel, brutal and bloody.

But the killers are barely touched by any guilt. In fact, they are rather easily persuaded to demonstrate for Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary cameras the precise choreography of the slaughter. Oppenheimer takes these demonstrations-- one is a crude display of execution by strangulation -- to the next level, with the wilful complicity of his subjects. Given an opportunity to dress up and apply makeup, these killers stage murders in the visual lexicon of pop movies, with themselves playing variations of Hollywood gangsters, cowboys, and even musical stars.

It is jarring surreal spectacle, but it is also extremely disturbing. When one of the gangsters takes it upon himself to "direct" some neighbourhood women and children as extras to demonstrate how their victims might scream and beg for mercy, one can hear the echoes of real-life victims from almost half a century ago.

If one marvels at the ease with which Oppenheimer managed this achievement, the film explains by framing the action in the context of the nation's political corruption, where even a vice-president sings the praises of gangsters under the common Indonesian definition as "free men."

The Act of Killing is a trip through the looking glass, in which Oppenheimer and his team give their subjects enough celluloid to, if not hang, at least thoroughly indict themselves.

On another level, the film is also an absolutely chilling display of how a culture of violence may breed monsters. In that, the viewer cannot take any consolation that the issue is half a century and half a world away.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 G10

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