Published on August 7th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant2
The Act of Killing
If you could talk to Hitler, what would he say about his heinous acts of genocide? Sometimes people think of atrocities like this as something that you only see in black and white on History television, though war crimes are far from having been abolished, even in this information age — they’re still happening in our lifetime, from Rwanda to Darfur and beyond. The Act of Killing is a documentary that gives us some amazing access to some of the men that carried out the Indonesian killings of 1965 to 1966. It’s estimated that around a million people were killed, and the West largely backed this genocide, because the action was focused on rubbing out communists at the height of the cold war.
There’s a song by Okkervil River called ‘The War Criminal Rises and Speaks,’ where a war criminal that kills of village of women and children tries to explain why he did what he did, in one of the most hair-raising lyrics on the subject. “How did I climb out of a life so boring, into that moment?” he asks. In the song, the war criminal wants to atone, wants to go back in time and trade places with his victims. However, today, in Indonesia, most of the people involved, including current government officials, don’t want to atone — they want to brag about it. They are fond of saying, “Gangster means ‘free man.’”
Director Joshua Oppenheimer shows us this world through a unique window — he arranges for several of the key players to tell their own story via a film of their own creation. They have control over shooting recreations of their war crimes in the style of Hollywood movies that they love, like the gangster film or musicals. Through this lens, we overhear some ‘between shot’ conversations that are intensely revealing about whether they should be hiding their crimes, or whether they were even crimes in the first place. But we also see a misguided sickness in them; it’s almost like they think their film will be a Hollywood epic that will feature them as matinee idols in the same light as someone like Al Pacino in Scarface. Of course, the documentary is making them famous, just not in the way they may have thought. This whole device could have been totally gimmicky, but instead, it showcases Oppenheimer as the next big voice in documentary filmmaking, the next Errol Morris or Werner Herzog (who both, in fact, have producer credits on the film).
While the movie shows the appalling manner in which they pat themselves on the back for murdering thousands of people, it’s smarter than just being a slag piece. In the time Oppenheimer spends with his subjects, he makes sure to show their human sides, however, it’s not to excuse them for what they’ve done, but more to show that anyone could walk down this path, if they were in that time and place. Again, “How did I climb out of a life so boring, into that moment?”
There’s more context to the killings that the movie doesn’t explore — in fact, some might be annoyed that the film doesn’t really explain the genocide in detail. However, it’s not about the historical ‘thing that happened.’ It’s about how a person commits these crimes, and how they process it over many years. And in fact, our own Western countries are party to this more than we’d like to admit. One of the characters talks about war crimes at Guantanamo and George Bush. “War crimes are decided by the winner,” he says. “And I am the winner.”
My only criticism of the film would be that it meanders somewhat, and not always for good reason. I’m sure its 2 hour and 21 minute running time could have been edited down to make the movie a bit less clunky here and there. Otherwise, from the access to the subject matter, to some of the striking beauty of Indonesia, juxtaposed with the horror of what happened there, The Act of Killing is one of the best documentaries of all time.