I hadn't heard of it before last week. But being increasingly curious about and needing to better understand the history that has brought us to the political and social environment we live in today, I was compelled to sit through this two hour documentary. It will likely be considered a classic in due time.
More terrifying than any horror film, and more intellectually adventurous than just about any 2013 release so far, The Act of Killing is a major achievement, a work about genocide that rightly earns its place alongside Shoah as a supreme testament to the cinema's capacity for inquiry, confrontation, and remembrance.
To dub Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary a masterpiece is at once warranted and yet somehow limiting, the term too narrow for what the first-time filmmaker achieves with his debut.The Act of Killing does NOT show any actual violence. The main character however, Anwar Congo, personally boasts of killing hundreds of ethnic Chinese and communists in 1960s Indonesia. He simulates violent scenarios he helped carry out. The horrifying aspect of this movie is in the realization of how "gangsters" and paramilitary groups of young people (including young adults) are treated as heroes in their communities and their country.
Even in current day Indonesia, broadcast television interviewers describe what these gangsters did as "a more efficient system for exterminating communists. A system more humane, less sadistic and without excessive violence." Every single word of that description is euphemistic propaganda, designed solely to have the Indonesian viewers accept that the mass killing was somehow good and noble.
Then Oppenheimer asks why these mass murderers have never been punished. One of them spells it out, "War crimes are defined by the winners. I am a winner. So I can make my own definition."
In World War II, the Germans did not win the war. Even so, there are still people who deny there was ever a holocaust. Nevertheless, Germany did not get the privilege of defining what was or was not a war crime.
The ultimate question must be whether and under what conditions could such mass killings ever happen again. Could it ever happen, especially here, in the United States?
We would hope not, right? But could it?
The Act of Killing plays through August 8th at the Harkins Camelview in Scottsdale; and in Tucson, at The Loft Cinema, September 13-19.