Some trailers don’t need accompanying synopsis or explanation. This isn’t one of those. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about Indonesian Death Squads will screen in Toronto as well, and the TIFF site is where I found the best observations about the bizarre proceedings.
“I have not come across a documentary as powerful, surreal, and frightening in a decade,” wrote Werner Herzog after seeing an early preview of The Act of Killing, and both he and Errol Morris were impressed enough to sign on as executive producers. A chilling and revelatory exploration of the sometimes perilously thin line between film violence and real-life violence, the film investigates a murderous, oft-forgotten chapter of history in a way that is startlingly original and bound to stir debate: enlisting a group of former killers to re-enact their lives (and deaths) in the style of the film noirs, musicals and westerns that they love.
The Act of Killing’s subjects are the Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo and his band of dedicated followers. In the 1960s, Anwar was a small-time gangster who sold movie tickets on the black market and found an idealized self-image in the gunslinging heroes on the screen. Coming out of the midnight show, he and his friends felt “just like gangsters who had stepped off the screen,” and were enraged by the communists who boycotted American films — the most popular and profitable. When the government of President Sukarno was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his cohorts joined in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Anwar and his friends take pride in their past and are eager to recreate it in the form of movie scenes with elaborate sets, costumes, pyrotechnics and extras enlisted to play victims. But as movie violence and real-life violence intertwine, Anwar’s boastfulness gradually gives way to expressions of unease and regret.
Unlike other nations where the perpetrators of genocide have been brought to justice or disgraced, in Indonesia the killers stayed in power, wrote their own triumphant history, and became role models for millions of young paramilitaries to this day. Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer has spent over a decade working with death squads and their victims, which comes through in his knowledge of and passionate investment in this subject. This is a film people will be talking about for years to come.