"The Act of Killing" is a polarizing film — one that rattles you to your core and gives rise to your worst fears. We see killers take joy in their work. It’s a close-up view of evil like you've never seen it before. Unsurprisingly, there are audiences who are angry with Joshua Oppenheimer (and presumably with his co-directors, Christine Cynn and another who had to remain anonymous) for giving license to this uncomfortable truth, as if it’s a celebration of the worst of humanity.
But "The Act of Killing" is an act of hope. On the simplest level, it brings attention to the forgotten as the best documentaries do: While it might be sad but unsurprising that Americans were aware of the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966, much less the brutal policies that led to the murder of perhaps 1 million ethnic Chinese, intellectuals and other accused Communists, much of the country itself prefers to believe that the genocide never happened.
However, that’s where the real strength in “The Act of Killing” comes into play, in its audacious structure that allows the thugs who oversaw the death squads, and who killed with their own hands, to tell the story in their own actions — which, as usual, are much louder than words. Oppenheimer provides that stage (and it is a stage, one that even includes a garish cross-dressing musical number) for men who deserve the worst and will never see their comeuppance.
"He asked to show me the unfinished film, in London. Director’s cuts are usually so boring, but after 15 minutes I knew I had to support this film. 'The Act of Killing' tells a story that is at once so powerful and so absurd —documentaries like this come around once every quarter century.”
— Werner Herzog, who joined the production as an executive producer after screening an early cut of “The Act of Killing”
Film As a Platform:
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Impact on Indonesia:
Ahead of its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, Austin-based Drafthouse Films and Participant Media are picking up U.S. rights to Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Look of Silence," the director's follow-up to Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing," which Drafthouse also released. "The Look of Silence" continues the story of Indonesian survivors begun by "The Act of Killing." The film explores the Indonesian genocide and legacy from the point-of-view of one male victim as he chases down his brother's killers.
"The Look of Silence" examines the same incidents of Indonesian genocide, this time from the victims' perspective.
There are reasons to value each nominee for best documentary this year, but only one of them makes history.