Star­tling doc­u­men­tary dra­ma­tizes geno­cide

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ran­dall King

IN our heads, ev­ery one of us is the star of our own movie. This absolutely as­ton­ish­ing doc­u­men­tary em­ploys that com­mon nar­cis­sism to sub­ver­sive ef­fect by ex­am­in­ing the mem­o­ries of some old men who par­tic­i­pated in a mas­sacre of some half a mil­lion peo­ple in In­done­sia in 1965-66.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity for what was called a Com­mu­nist purge may have rested with the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen­eral Suharto, but the ac­tual mur­ders were per­pe­trated in large num­bers by “gang­sters.” In­done­sia’s un­der­world ele­ments read­ily and even glee­fully killed real Com­mu­nists, in­tel­lec­tu­als and Chi­nese na­tion­als, of­ten tak­ing their vic­tims’ prop­erty for them­selves in the process.

As we learn from the killers them­selves, the mur­ders were cruel, bru­tal and bloody.

But the killers are barely touched by any guilt. In fact, they are rather eas­ily per­suaded to demon­strate for Joshua Op­pen­heimer’s doc­u­men­tary cam­eras the pre­cise chore­og­ra­phy of the slaugh­ter. Op­pen­heimer takes th­ese demon­stra­tions— one is a crude dis­play of ex­e­cu­tion by stran­gu­la­tion — to the next level, with the wil­ful com­plic­ity of his sub­jects. Given an op­por­tu­nity to dress up and ap­ply makeup, th­ese killers stage mur­ders in the vis­ual lex­i­con of pop movies, with them­selves play­ing vari­a­tions of Hol­ly­wood gang­sters, cow­boys, and even mu­si­cal stars.

It is jar­ring sur­real spec­ta­cle, but it is also ex­tremely dis­turb­ing. When one of the gang­sters takes it upon him­self to “di­rect” some neigh­bour­hood women and chil­dren as ex­tras to demon­strate how their vic­tims might

Di­rected by Joshua Op­pen­heimer, Chris­tine Cynn and Anony­mous Cine­math­eque 14A 120 min­utes

out of five scream and beg for mercy, one can hear the echoes of real-life vic­tims from al­most half a cen­tury ago.

If one mar­vels at the ease with which Op­pen­heimer man­aged this achieve­ment, the film ex­plains by fram­ing the ac­tion in the con­text of the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, where even a vice-pres­i­dent sings the praises of gang­sters un­der the com­mon In­done­sian def­i­ni­tion as “free men.”

The Act of Killing is a trip through the look­ing glass, in which Op­pen­heimer and his team give their sub­jects enough cel­lu­loid to, if not hang, at least thor­oughly in­dict them­selves.

On an­other level, the film is also an absolutely chill­ing dis­play of how a cul­ture of vi­o­lence may breed mon­sters. In that, the viewer can­not take any con­so­la­tion that the is­sue is half a cen­tury and half a world away.

A mu­si­cal num­ber in The Act of Killing.

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