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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 17. The Act of Killing

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Nominations: Documentary Feature

The Documentary Feature field at the Oscars this year has lots of great movies nominated, movies about the impact of fame on marriage, the aspirations of music’s greatest background singers, the mass protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, and the war on terror fought in the shadows by the Joint Special Operations Command. And there’s director Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a film that completely transcends the concept of documentary filmmaking. Oppenheimer’s project, backed by famed German director Werner Herzog, is more along the lines of a social experiment meant to explore the idea that there is no objective definition of right and wrong: Oppenheimer lends his resources to men formerly belonging to the Indonesian death-squads under dictator Suharto, men who have tortured and murdered thousands of people between them, and asks them to use these resources to tell their version of the truth in any manner that they wish.

Oppenheimer’s main focal point is Anwar Congo, a kindly-looking silver-haired old man and former executioner. Congo rallies his lieutenants enthusiastically at Oppenheimer’s request, and he and his old pals go about recreating interrogations, tortures, raids, and murders. At first explanation this project admittedly comes off as blandly exploitative… except that Congo and his men are big fans of America movies. What ensues is a surreal cocktail gangster vignettes and bizarre cabarets filled with lively music and Congo’s right-hand Herman Koto in grotesque drag. Totally secure in their beliefs that they cannot be held for their actions forty-years after the fact, the men argue and discuss the past atrocities that they willingly participated in. As the film rolls on the idea that fact is stranger than fiction becomes a startling reality: these murders confess and justify their actions at every opportunity, even at one point talking about it all on a talk show in front of a television audience. If you find a moment to breath and pull your brain away from the acid trip that this movie is, you might find time to ask the most important question of all – how did Oppenheimer get these goons to play rats in his cinematic maze?

Joshua Oppenheimer has achieved so much with The Act of Killing that is impossible to pinpoint a paramount moment of success, but the one that jumps out is how the facilitated shenanigans of these criminals forces them to reflect on their crimes, and as the remorse starts to eek out of them like a blood-letting there comes a small justice for the victims and the audience. The disturbance that comes from witnessing the revel and hedonism of Congo and his lackeys is only matched by the satisfaction of subsequently witnessing that joy turn to ash. It wouldn’t be correct to call the ending a catharsis – that would imply there’s relief to be had after watching Killing – but perhaps comeuppance will do. People have been succeeding in building stark films of real-world horror, but this is something else. Something much bigger and worth attempting to recreate elsewhere. Yes the other Documentary Feature nominees are great, but none hold a candle to this dark masterpiece.

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