The Act of Killing is not only the best film of 2013, but also the most horrifying. It is a movie with overwhelming force; it’s shocking, provocative and unsettling. Yet it is not a horror, but a documentary: a film that follows the life of mass murderers.
It is clear from the very first second that The Act Of Killing is not an ordinary documentary: in a surprisingly kitschy and surreal opening setting, colourfully dressed women dance forward from the mouth of a huge fish. It is not only a movie that documents its protagonists’ everyday lives, but with a wonderfully creative twist, it also documents their imaginations.
As the introductory lines read, in 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anybody who criticized the dictatorship could be labelled as a communist and get executed. The government used paramilitary forces and gangsters to carry out the killings. Over the course of a year more than a million people were murdered and the state sponsored mass execution took part under the eyes of western governments. ’s movie follows their story. He asked the murderers to recreate their evil deeds in whatever way they wished in front of the camera in a quest to find out the true nature of the act of killing.
The Danish based American director (with the support of and as executive producers) mixes the documentary with the recreated scenes of the killings by the perpetrators themselves that are inspired by various genres: some imitate Hollywood gangster archetypes, exhibit gore and horror elements, or sometimes copy musicals. They even display a black kind of humour by evoking ; a husky paramilitary leader Herman Koto, likes to dress up in drag, as an Indonesian version of Divine.
What is truly wonderful about the movie is that it not only exposes something alarming about the human nature (that most of us probably would even prefer not to know), but through its 'film in a film' method, it highlights the amazing power of cinema. The moving image can be used as a mirror in which every viewer can recognize themselves and dawn on shocking truths.
Our protagonists are not only gangsters, they are movie gangsters. They claim that their cruel ways were inspired by American gangster movies. The main character is Anwar Congo, a veteran who used to be the most feared executioner in the region of North Sumatra, a province of 14 million people. He is in his sixties but still fit, good-humoured and friendly. At the beginning of the film he takes us to a roof where he executed hundreds of people. He is boasting about how he routinely tortured his victims and even came up with his own favourite method: he preferred to strangle them with a wire, because beating them to pulp was too messy. After the demonstration, he starts dancing on the spot of his brutal killings.
With Anwar's character in the centre, the movie is a confession, a retelling of the events from a first party witness and a character expose all in one. He escapes responsibility by distancing and by thinking about himself as a movie gangster ("I wore jeans for killing. To look cool, I imitated movie stars"). Oppenheimer disarms his defensive approach precisely with its own weapon: through the re-enacted scenes he remembers the reality, and behind the fake he starts to see the real with his mind's eye. In the scene of a recreated raid of a village everything is fake: the village is fake, the violence is fake and the screaming women and children are the family of the perpetrators who are in the middle of re-acting their "heroic" deeds. And yet, after the director screams cut, the children and the women are still crying. The "actors" are haunted by their past and the secure world they built up for themselves to escape reality, their automatism to perceive reality as fiction, slowly falls apart in front of the camera.
The most powerful scene of the movie is where Congo's neighbour Suryono tells the story of how his communist stepfather was abducted and killed by the death squad. He describes the event jokingly like it was something funny, reassuring the gangsters that he is "not criticizing what they are doing". He was only 12 years old the night his father was taken away, whom they found the next day under an oil barrel. He had to help bury him next to the road. The film continues with the gangsters' discussion about how to recreate the scene, but the camera focuses on Suryono's face, who slowly breaks down under the weight of his recollection. Oppenheimer does not show direct violence, but thanks to his creative, precisely structured and patient method (he was filming over the course of seven years), guilt slowly filters through the armour of the masquerade and circumlocution and leaves the characters paralysed and the viewers awestruck.
Oppenheimer is a modern day Dostoyevsky, who unveils the truth with the help of his camera. Not only political truth (the killers still control politicians and business leaders), but the true nature of the human soul and morality. These gangsters live in a world of crime without punishment, but eventually Anwar's guilt displays the destructive nature of denial. He does not have to face the justice of a court, but in the end he does have to face his own conscience. Oppenheimer builds up the film with a perfect rhythm and the film reaches a true catharsis in the end. As a framing device, Anwar returns to the roof we could see at the beginning. It becomes the location of his own torture: he physically breaks down and coughs up all his guilt while the camera keeps rolling.
The Act of Killing not only authentically unfolds painful secrets in a nation's history, but unveils the true function of art: it invites the viewers to think and to discuss. It is brutally thought-provoking and reveals the unbelievable power of cinema and that is why it is my most favourite film of 2013.