The Act of Killing, 159 mins, rated MA15+, opens 3 October 2013, exclusively (in NSW) at Dendy Newtown.


(This is my review as published in the October 2013 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

The Act of Killing is a flawed, but remarkable, documentary film. It tells the story of evil men who kill and torture. Some scenes are so horrific that they are hard to watch – even though it is clear they are just dramatic (or even comedic) recreations of historical events. Other scenes are so compelling that you can’t turn away. Some scenes are simply incredible, yet they reflect the documented truth.

When The Act of Killing screened at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival, many were certain that it would win the Sydney Film Prize, for "courageous, audacious and cutting-edge filmmaking." We had never seen a film like this. But it didn’t win. The panel gave the award to Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent film Only God Forgives (2013) – and the audience booed.

Co-director of The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer, said he was trying to make a new kind of documentary: a documentary of the imagination. That might explain the film beginning with a very strange musical number, with dancing girls and a grotesque character dressed in drag. All this is not really explained, but it seems to be an allegorical part of a film that we later learn the "protagonists" are making.

And the “protagonists”? They are several former real life death-squad leaders who discuss – and re-enact – their misdeeds after the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government of President Sukarno, during the subsequent anti-communist purge. From 1965 to 1966, Indonesia’s military regime, under General Suharto, encouraged local gangsters to participate in the killing of many thousands of alleged Communists, Chinese, and intellectuals. This film showcases those gangsters. Amazingly, they are still proud of what they did.

Introducing his film at the Sydney Film Festival, Oppenheimer said he wanted to explore questions of how and why we commit evil, what the effect of evil is on us, and how we use stories to escape from our most bitter truths.

Oppenheimer, an American filmmaker who now lives in London, had tried for three years to make a film about the Indonesian purges of 1965-66. He managed to get funding from Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom. He lived and worked in Indonesia for several years. He spoke the language. But he found it extremely difficult to get the survivors of the purges to speak on the record.

Then he found that some members of the death squads were still around, now powerful and respected leaders of their city, Medan. And they were still openly boastful of their crimes. Oppenheimer discovered that they had begun as ticket scalpers at local movie theaters, and they were big movie fans. And so he devised a new approach. He got them to agree to recreate on film what they did back then – in whatever genre of film they preferred.

There's much fascinating historical detail in this film, and plenty of psychological revelation, especially from Anwar Congo, a leader in Indonesia's pro-regime paramilitary group, Pancasila Youth, during the 1960s. He admits that the movies he watched in those years directly influenced his methods of killing. Chillingly, he describes how, after watching a happy film, like an Elvis Presley musical, he would “kill in a happy way”. Anwar is an engaging presence in the film, and it is his journey in the film that is the most revelatory. At times you feel simultaneously appalled at what you are watching, and yet disgusted with yourself for being "entertained".

But there’s the problem with The Act of Killing. The director is giving these dreadful men a platform. Perhaps they use that platform as a scaffold from which to hang themselves, but still they get to star in a movie which they control to a certain extent. For example,  gangster Herman Koto gathers "volunteers" for the re-enactment of the Kampung Kolam massacre, by bullying them. The re-enactment is so horrific that some participants become hysterical – including Koto’s own daughter. You have to question the filmmakers’ ethics in aiding and abetting this.

The film’s other problem is that it is too long. There is a limit to how much horror one can consume, and 159 minutes pushed that limit for me. The film would have greatly benefitted from tightening.

But despite its faults, this film is a fascinating and brave attempt to transcend the documentary form. Courageous, audacious, cutting-edge filmmaking indeed. A true original.