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act of killing - posterIf the content in The Act of Killing was pitched as a fiction film, my guess is there is no studio that would take it on because who in the hell would believe it? To call this film, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, haunting is really doing it an incredible disservice.

Anwar Congo (left) and Herman Koto (right)

Anwar Congo (left) and Herman Koto (right)

Oppenheimer turns his cameras mostly on two men, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, both self-professed gangsters (or “free men” as they repeatedly state since the derivation of the Indonesian word for gangster means this literally), who were involved in the mass killings of communists in Indonesia in late 1965 and early 1966. The numbers vary depending on who is giving them, but it is said that between 500,000 – 2,000,000 people were killed in this short time, rivaling the brutal ethnic violence between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Those numbers are incredibly astonishing, but what’s more astonishing is the lack of any kind of remorse shown on the part of Congo and Koto for their actions. In fact, Oppenheimer films them as they make their own film, re-enacting the murders they carried out as well as ordered during the great communist purge.

Congo showing how he killed many communits...with a wire because it was less messy.

Congo showing how he killed many communists…with a wire because it was less messy.

In one scene, Congo takes Oppenheimer to the roof of a merchants where he details how he killed the victims in that very spot. He smiles pleasantly as he tells the story of blood filling the patio where they were killed, unrattled by having taken so many people’s lives. And later, in a moment that is unbelievably disturbing, he and Koto critique his performance.

act of killing - head smashed

As the film continues along, we can see Congo start to come to the realization that what he did was wrong. We don’t see that with Koto nor do we see that from Adi Zulkadry, a friend and also a former executioner like Congo when he comes back to film his parts in the film. Unapologetic about the executions, Zulkadry warns Congo and the filmmakers making their reenactment that they need to be careful because what they may end up showing is that the anti-communists (themselves) were in fact more cruel that the communists themselves, the whole reason they were executed in the first place.

Adi Zulkadry (left) and Congo getting their makeup for an interrogation scene.

Adi Zulkadry (left) and Congo getting their makeup for an interrogation scene.

This film hit such a note for fellow documentarians Werner Herzog (who claims this is the best film made in the last 25 years) and Errol Morris, that they executive produced the film and and saw it through to completion. That is a lineage that is too good to pass up on name alone. Here they are talking about the film:

This is an experience like none I’ve ever seen and let’s hope it’s the last of its kind. Oppenheimer captured something exceedingly haunting and terribly sad, but this is a film that needed to be made and one that needs to be seen.

Congo, a changed man?

Congo, a changed man?

In my opinion, this is the best documentary of the year and would narrowly lose to 12 Years a Slave as the best film of the year. Get there, people. This film is waiting to be watched. And don’t be surprised if you see it take home the Oscar on March 2.

This film is available for streaming on Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and iTunes.

Here’s the trailer: