The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous
Year Released: 2012
Rating: 3.5

Oppenheimer and his (largely anonymous) crew get together members of the notorious Indonesian death squads, including the charismatic Anwar Congo, to talk about their past deeds, their views on their country, how to eradicate "Communists" and, most disturbingly, recreate the methods of execution with actors playing their victims (in one notable bit, Congo himself "plays" one of his countless victims). What I initially feared would be gimmicky concept is actually a thematically rich and magnificently shaded portrait of a nation that shows little to no remorse for the deaths of innumerable people deemed enemies of the state - Congo defends his actions, though there are breakthrough moments in which he admits he has nightmares and it's mentioned at one point that several of the people involved in the death squads did, in fact, go insane. What makes this even more surreal is how the concept of artifice is carefully played around with by Oppenheimer and crew: what, exactly, occurred "naturally," what was a result of the filmmakers' probing questions and set-ups and precisely how much the audience is viewing and hearing is "real" or just more lies: the admission by the one principal figure that "we've all become like soap opera actors" is particularly telling. Since this is a complex effort that carefully walks a tightrope of morality, one could very easily view it as Oppenheimer staging these reenactments as a way of 'getting even' with these men for the atrocities they committed (via cinematic retribution): that they force Congo and his cohorts to review (and even critique) their theatrical reenactments can be seen as a passive-aggressive form of revenge on behalf of the deceased. No matter how one views it, this is a difficult and upsetting documentary ... and all the more powerful as a result.