Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, Jusuf Kalla, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, Syamsul Arifin, Haji Anif, Sakhyan Asmara, Herman Koto, Ibrahim Sinik, Soaduon Siregar, Haji Marzuki, Safit Pardede
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Indonesian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 08/09/2013

The Act of Killing (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wire Acts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'll level with you: The Act of Killing isn't a whole lot of fun to watch. It's downright difficult. I'll probably never see it again, but I'm glad I saw it. It's a radical act of filmmaking unlike anything ever made. In fact, it's off-the-charts insane. Your jaw will hit the floor at least a half-dozen times at the sheer audacity on display, both by the filmmakers and by the subjects.

This movie is so badass that one of the three directors, and most of the crew members, preferred to go by "Anonymous" in the credits.

In the mid-1960s, in Indonesia, the government employed death squads to hunt and kill communists. The filmmakers interview the killers Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, and, to go one further, ask them to recreate some of their most memorable killings for the camera, complete with costumes and makeup.

It's absolutely shocking to see that these killers have very little guilt or reservations about what they did. They saw themselves as enthusiastic, romantic gangsters, inspired by American movies and full of swagger. Congo does admit to having nightmares, and Zulkadry notes that they were probably much more brutal and cruel to the communists than the communists ever were to them.

The movie paints a grim picture of Indonesia today, run by corrupt politicians that bribe the people for votes and a paramilitary organization, the Pancasila, that uses muscle to terrorize citizens, while supposedly keeping "order," and keeping those pesky communists at bay. (Though, honestly, if you were a communist, wouldn't you live somewhere else at this point?)

Oddly, after the intensity of re-staging their murders, some of these guys begin to see things in a different light, especially during one scenes wherein Congo plays the victim. Congo has a couple of stirring final scenes in the film that actually give you some hope for the guy.

But at the same time directors Joshua Oppenheimer (who seems to be mostly in charge; he's the one that the interview subjects most refer to by name), Christine Cynn, and "Anonymous," are clearly deceiving their subjects in the name of justice. They are filmed talking amongst themselves, as if unaware that this movie is going to be a documentary, rather than an exciting gangster film.

However, that's the truly enticing thing about The Act of Killing is that it's rampantly ungraspable and indefinable. Do we like Anwar Congo, despite the fact that he developed an efficient method of snapping off heads with a length of wire? Sure. He's a complicated guy, both evil and good. Likewise, our directors are simultaneously heroic and sneaky. (One suspects that this is the reason for the "Anonymous" credits; these gangsters may not appreciate how they came out in this final, released movie.)

I kept thinking that, ultimately, The Act of Killing shows how ridiculous the entire communism thing always was. All that fear and hysteria over what? It doesn't show this by explaining it directly, but by showing the skewed perspective of it. It's absolutely brilliant.

In one scene, Zulkadry mentions Bush and Saddam Hussein and Guantanamo, saying how those things were accepted in their time and are now demonized. I suddenly imagined what a movie like this could do for Bush and Cheney; ask them to make action movies and cowboy movies out of their favorite exploits in office and see what comes of it. What a brilliant idea.

This movie is so brilliant, finally, that both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris -- our two most outstanding and outrageous documentary filmmakers -- signed on as executive producers, and used their real names.

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