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by Eric Kohn
February 26, 2014 1:36 PM
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Indiewire’s Film Critic Picks the Oscars: Why 'The Act of Killing' Is the Most Important Oscar Contender In This Year’s Race

There are reasons to value each best documentary nominee this year, but only one makes history. That honor doesn’t belong to “The Square,” Jehane Noujaim’s stirring account of Egypt’s tumultuous revolution, which certainly does a capable job of documenting history in action. It’s also not applicable to “Dirty Wars,” a competent account of journalist Jeremy Scahill’s underground work exposing U.S. efforts throughout the Middle East to cover up mismanaged espionage missions, assassinations, and other unflattering efforts, based on the reporter’s book of the same name. And while “Cutie and the Boxer” eloquently chronicles the romance between an eccentric painter and his devout partner, its appeal lies in its story’s intimacy rather than any larger thematic context.

But Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is more than just a movie that tackles consequential issues; it’s the cinematic equivalent of hitting the alarm while simultaneously being the alarm. It magnifies present-day evil by giving it room to breathe.

The director’s years-in-the-works portrait showcases former Indonesian gangsters responsible for murdering countless civilians during the country’s horrific anti-communist purge in the late sixties. Despite the context, however, it doesn’t provide a tidy overview of the events in question. Instead, Oppenheimer gives his demented subjects the luxury of telling their stories on their own terms — and, finding that they’re willing to boast about it, gives them the tools to construct their fantasies.

This approach doesn’t go down easy for anyone. Along with plentiful accolades, “The Act of Killing” has inspired a mixture of contempt and suspicion with regard to its moral implications. The questions write themselves: How could Oppenheimer, along with co-directors Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, possibly justify this glorification of abject corruption?

Perhaps the only answer: By trusting their audience to get the message.

A musical sequence from "The Act of Killing."

Just as fellow Oscar nominee Hayao Miyazaki has been criticized for celebrating a brilliant engineer whose work was used for warfare in “The Wind Rises,” Oppenheimer constantly faces accusations that he glamorizes the murderers in question. But the lack of accountability is precisely what makes “The Act of Killing” such a radical, transformative experience: No movie in recent memory comes this close to witnessing purely psychotic behavior in deeply personal terms.

Yet even if “The Act of Killing” were guilty of celebrating its subjects, it would still deserve singling out for its creative means of magnifying deplorable behavior. In that regard, it exists in a longstanding tradition. One could argue that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” set the bar for the unsteady dichotomy between appreciating art and abhorring its content (although “Birth of a Nation” got the ball rolling). By isolating individual components of “The Act of Killing,” it would be easy to place it in this same problematic tradition: The filmmakers have the gall to stage flamboyant musical set piece and moody film noir reenactions of torture scenes by taking cues from boastful gangster Anwar Congo and his cohorts.

But these disturbing sequence reflect a canny intellectual gamble on the part of the directors, whose willingness to glamorize these evils form a shocking contrast with the events in question. As a result, “The Act of Killing” simultaneously exposes a genocidal event barely known by the rest of the world and represents the deluded subjectivity that allowed it to take place. It’s a story not only about the machine behind the killings but the gears that made it run, as well as the defense mechanisms that keep them churning in the present. There’s nothing else like it: a movie that turns its threat into real people while forcing you to sift through their guilt. Not even Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” approached the Nazis responsible for the destruction at its center without a hidden camera. In “The Act of Killing,” the villains hog the spotlight, and your only choices are to stare them down — or look away.

When I saw “The Act of Killing” at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, at the tail of a long, exhausting weekend, the last thing I wanted to do was sit through a two hour-plus depiction of utter lunacy. With time, however, I found myself increasingly challenged, perplexed and ultimately riveted by its layered approach, which simultaneously posed open-ended questions and trapped us in the clutches of its subjects. Some audiences were similarly affected; others fled during the more outrageously expressionistic bits. Rarely does a work confront its viewers with such a daring proposition; the possibility that it could receive global acclaim is even rarer. “The Act of Killing” deserves to win the Oscar not in spite of those walkouts but because of them.

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4 Comments

  • Paulina | February 28, 2014 1:56 PMReply

    I disagree. Is it an important film? Yes. But to make a moral argument as to why it should win awards? I don't think so, not considering that violence might be, to no one's surprise, a stunt. I grew up in Colombia where violence was way too real to be glamorized. I believe the reason people think The Act of Killing is the greatest thing ever it's precisely the fact that the subjects and conflict are so removed from their own reality. It's a virtual voyage into someone's reality, but the fact that this indeed IS someone's reality makes it, I believe, reprehensible. I walked away because I felt complicit. Complicit not with the subject but with the filmmakers. You can argue how great the film is, but why make a moral argument? It is not the right thing nor the wrong one to watch a film like this, it's a voyeuristic choice, not a moral one.

  • Ed Names | February 28, 2014 1:48 AMReply

    I really have to disagree; I had mixed feelings watching the film but in the end thought that it was a calculated stunt, which, given the subject matter, is reprehensible. Some other review pointed out that if the film was about concentration camp guards re-enacting their crimes, we would be horrified. Because it is a far-away conflict that we don't know much about, we accept the strange approach to the story and even laud it. The justification is that 1. the perpetrators won, and that is why they boast about their feats; 2. the filmmakers couldn't make the film about the victims, so they turned to the perpetrators, who were more than willing to re-enact their crimes. Fine. But that doesn't explain the glee the filmmakers put into accentuating and re-enforcing the surreal vanity of their subjects. The argument could be made that the killers reveal themselves as the sick bastards they are, and that is what makes the film unsettling. True. But is that enough? What impact does that really have on the western audience, besides re-telling the most eccentric bits of it, and how does it reveal anything new about the deranged mind of a bully let loose in a political climate favoring them? Ethically, even if a film shows the nature of the deranged killer in an uncanny way, it is a failure if it does not acknowledge the victims first and foremost - in that sense, The Square and Dirty Wars are much more humanistic.

  • ernest | February 27, 2014 12:17 AMReply

    Eric: you really gave me the framework for understanding this difficult film. Thank you.

  • zev guber | February 26, 2014 4:55 PMReply

    Most appreciated is your critique of "The Act of Killing." You provide a context for the viewers who have and have not seen this challenging motion picture. Having seen it, I concur with the points you raise and the range of emotions it evokes. We are all challenged by evil, which has so many faces. We want to close our eyes and forget, yet the departed spirits of the dead scream out to each of us to make a better world. You have made the case for why we dare not turn away and the cost of doing so. Despite the deniers, the horrors of the Holocaust did occur. Our unwillingness, individually and collectively to confront evil empowers its spread. I was most conflicted when I 1st saw “The Act of Killing,” yet sometimes strong medicine is needed. This film is undoubtedly strong medicine. By illuminating a dark corner of our world this film, like sunlight, has the power to halt the spread of mold and virus. Can we afford to turn away?