The most shocking thing about The Act of Killing is that it is not a documentary about the governmentally sanctioned mass murder of suspected Communists between 1965-66, at least not in the strict sense. In fact, the entirety of Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing documentary is about these killings, but it is about them as they exist today, and in the mind. Oppenheimer’s modern-day film tasks men who took part in the killings with recreating fictional variations on their most heinous acts, and in doing so it ever so slightly shifts its focus away from the killings as they happened and onto the killings as an experiential concept, how the men who took part in them relate them to the world of fictional film, and how we as an audience interpret the act of cinema viewing in relation to the violence done by cinema-goers in the real world. It is about the violence of the mind, and the violence of cinema. The Act of Killing is a nasty, harrowing work about the past, but it tells a far more timeless, more undying tale about the relationship between humanity and fiction. In doing so, it not only explores the past and the present with a brutal eye for wicked human depravity, but it manages some of the most forward-thinking cinema of its decade.
It would have been the easiest, and most justified, thing in the world for Joshua Oppenheimer to direct The Act of Killing as a talking heads documentary where scholars and victims try to reconnect and analyze the history of the events depicted in the film. This would have been edifying and important history, but what Oppenheimer has done instead is not only far more starkly grotesque and emotionally jittery, but it is far more cinematically enrapturing. First and foremost, he allows himself and his presence to disappear, creating a highly naturalistic, oppressively direct film wherein we confront the perpetrators of the killing like a fly on the wall. Nothing, not the safety of interviews to distance the sense of the event from us by individualizing it, nor any historical evidence to segment the film off into the past away from its audience, is here to console us or to lull us into the safety of detachment. We are made to witness sadistic evil firsthand and address it, to confront it, without statistics or textual evidence to attempt to provide some understanding of the acts. For specific understanding, if enlightening in many ways, necessarily curtails the primitive haunt of the act of simply witnessing, of simply observing, and being forced to accept something one knows not how to.
But, aha: Oppenheimer provides us no formal first-hand depictions of the events either. How, you might ask, is one to depict a horrific mass murder and convey the pure hellish destruction and dehumanization of the affair without actually showing us the events in question? Well, one does show us, as Oppenheimer does. He simply doesn’t give us the version of it we might expect. He shows us something far more sinister and diabolical than the actual killings: the minds of the men who committed them, filtered through the chief means by which so many of us filter our thoughts. He shows us the cinema. In asking a small group of the executioners to “recreate” fictional interpretations of the killings by any means they have available to them, he disquiets us with the unthinkable: the minds of the killers, almost fifty years removed, calmer and aged, but still no less active and enthused about their own personal histories. Its a particularly grisly act of bringing history to life through the world of the cinema, the world of the mind we use to induce life and immortalize the past, and the world we mistake for pure fiction all too often.
Within, Oppenheimer sets up his invisible crew and camera like a series of ghosts peeking into a dangerous world wholly aware, and entirely proud, of its danger. The men approach us like everyday people, collected and reflective, laughing and bickering, and discussing subjects far and wide and often completely unrelated to the killings. Some of the most worrisome, weary moments depict the men transitioning from a hearty laugh about film noir or James Bond to smoky, even bragging reflections of their past valor (the nation of Indonesia still largely views the men as heroes, and they show few signs of disagreement or personal tension over their actions). They are instead, thoroughly excited for the opportunity to show off not only their past selves but their storytelling prowess, looking to the world of film to retell their exploits with muscular heroism and unbridled invention.
Their flights of fancy, from a particularly curdled noir to an expressive, high-contrast fantasy-musical, to works of more gritty realism, bridge the gamut and debate with us both as visual works that transfix the eyes and as thought pieces about the nature of fiction and reality. The overwhelming sense of the film is of men whose minds are still at work, and who take joy in recreating what they see as heroic. Thereby, Oppenheimer forces us to reckon with the idea that film is in the eye of the beholder. If, after all, these men can create such passionate, wild cinema out of their own horrifying past, what does this say about the cinema we hold dear? What national tragedies are many of our most loved works predicated on, and what inequalities do they invest themselves in and disguise with a veneer of fiction still?
For this reason, The Act of Killing is a remarkably elemental film, a work that does its blunt title proud. It is about the “act of killing” as a concept, how it relates to the minds of killers, and how fiction film in the making and in the watching voyeuristically asks us to confront violence and take joy in it because we know it to be “fake”. That the films these men create recall many fiction films of old, and explicitly reflect their own love and adoration for these genres, the nightmare regurgitations of a kaleidoscope of genres they reinterpret beg us to look back behind the gaze of film history and to confront our own selves with the past versions of our minds that have watched and loved movies unawares. It is not a surprise that Werner Herzog offered himself up as executive producer to the film’s vision. Herzog is a man who has made a career out of the rusty, tetanus-infused barbed wire that tethers fiction film and realist documentary together, teasing out the internal tensions between the separation of fiction and reality. He peruses his version of film history with no small helping of contempt and quiet rage. Oppenheimer clearly fashions himself after the German hot-head, creating a potent, live-wire work of cinematic deconstruction that asks more of us than any film of the 2010s thus far.
More than any film of the current decade, it also more seriously calls us out on any cinema we have ever loved, and it uses film in difficult, singular ways to make sure we can never consider the world of cinema the same way ever again. It is a filmic interrogation of how our understanding of violence always travels through the lexicon of cinema, how we understand real human violence, for better or worse, through the fictional films we use to explain violence. And sometimes, as the patchwork films depicted in The Act of Killing reveal, not simply to explain violence, but to explain it away. The Act of Killing is a statement to the power of cinema to expose violence, and more damningly, to imagine it. And, in more cases than we can probably ever understand, to legitimize it.