Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Horrific Act

The Act of Killing is perhaps not a widely known documentary. Among critics who have seen it, though, it has a sterling reputation (and an Oscar nomination and BAFTA win to go with it). I was curious to see what all the fuss was about... and found myself challenged by the results.

The documentary is a look back on mass killings perpetrated by a gangster/paramilitary group in 1960s Indonesia. Imagine if members of Hitler's inner circle -- Himmler, Göring, or Hess -- were alive half a century later to tell their story on film. That is The Act of Killing. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer focuses mainly on one man, Anwar Congo, who is thought to have personally killed over 1000 people. Oppenheimer gets Anwar to talk extensively about his experiences, and even to play director himself. The bulk of the documentary tracks Anwar as he films reenactments of his own deeds, portraying himself as a glamorous Hollywood gangster.

I'd like to think of myself as someone really willing to be confronted by a thoughtful piece of entertainment. Give me substance, not just cheap thrills. Well, there could hardly be a more Important Film than this... and I couldn't watch it.

Here was my reaction as I watched the movie. I found it repetitive, like a short subject stretched out endlessly to feature length. The same beat kept playing out over and over again: exposing this man Anwar as a horrifically callous individual. (And wouldn't you have to be?) My attention started to wander, until I ultimately fast-forwarded to the much talked about ending. (In which -- SPOILER -- Anwar actually begins to grow a conscience, breaking down and vomiting in horror as a tiny bit of what he has done finally begins to sink in.)

Afterward, I felt guilty about my reaction. How could I possibly view this documentary as a piece of "entertainment," and fault it for not engrossing me by some set of narrative rules? Isn't it enough that the movie's existence made me aware of historical atrocities of which I had little or no knowledge? That it now exists as an act of historical preservation, or to memorialize the victims? Isn't it enough that it made a true monster of a man begin to realize his monstrosity?

And yet, I couldn't watch all of this documentary that many have proclaimed as a modern masterpiece.

I think I'm going to forego giving a conventional grade on this one. But I do feel compelled to make more people aware of this movie's existence... and so here it is. The Act of Killing is horrific and incredible. Unbearable and necessary. I think I'm glad it exists, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. You'll have to decide for yourselves.

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