Much like Blackfish, the decision to watch The Act of Killing is similar to eating brussel sprouts. They'll be nice in their own way, you'll be better at the other end of it, but it's not exactly popcorn. For this reason, The Act of Killing will share a limited audience. This is a deep shame, as it's a particularly brilliant documentary.
When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends helped to kill hundreds of alleged communists, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese. They are mass murderers, and are revered today as influential gangsters. Anwar himself is the founder of a right-wing organisation that grew out of that time. In 2014, the organisation is so powerful that it hosts government ministers and the Vice President of Indonesia as its leaders. This is a world in which the killers have won.
Enter Joshua Oppenheimer, who has the rather bizarre stroke of genius to offer a unique opportunity to the murderers. He challenges them to make a film of the killings, asking them to re-enact their own victorious history. The men are all massive fans of American cinema, and so take to the offering with surreal glee. They are asked to play themselves, and their victims. Oppenheimer quietly films the entire process.
What follows is surreal, disturbing, macabre and funny. In an early scene, Anwar happily re-enacts choking his victims with wire. He laughs through the entire performance. His transformation over the period of making the film is one of the most skilled pieces of documentary film-making I've ever seen. It's completely remarkable. Anwar's final scene is haunting, and an amazing point of difference from where he began.
Oppenheimer positions himself as a quiet observer in the film itself, although he obviously develops a deep rapport and trust with the stars. Like all good docos, and much like Cutie and the Boxer (a fellow nominee for the Oscar this year), it offers multi-dimensional and surprising commentary on a myriad of themes. The Act of Killing is an enduring testament to the power of drama (the film is a feast for fans of Boal), while also a disturbing look at government corruption and poverty, while also a frighteningly intimate glimpse into post-traumatic stress disorder.
Watch The Act of Killing. It's brilliantly made, and shows the true, historical power of story-telling, and how it creates victims and winners of us all.