A remarkable, “hard to describe” new film focuses on murders and torture committed in 1960s Indonesia, exploring “the limits of human cruelty” according to one Bill Goodykoontz in the Arizona Republic:
The events initially addressed in “The Act of Killing” are little known in the West: the slaughter of as many as a million people in Indonesia following the military’s seizure of power there in 1965. The victims were labeled Communists but included labor leaders, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, with paramilitary groups carrying out the killings at the behest of the Indonesian Army and with the support of the United States and its allies, who worried that Indonesia, like Vietnam, would fall into Communist hands.
In Indonesia, the killings were “a kind of open secret, kept discreetly hidden so that if you wanted to, you could pretend it wasn’t happening,” said John Roosa, a scholar of Indonesian history at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Pretext for Mass Murder,” the leading book about the 1965 massacres. “So this film has become a provocation, an impetus for Indonesians to go back to the perpetrators and say, ‘Tell us exactly what happened.’ ”
Organized killings occurred all across Indonesia, the world’s fourth most-populous country, but Mr. Oppenheimer focuses on Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra. There a group of so-called “movie gangsters,” fans of John Wayne and Marlon Brando, as well as of mafia and American B-movies, did much of the killing, inspired in part by the films they loved.
What form is this film? Does it conform to or transform the traditional documentary format?
In view of all those issues, it seems pertinent to ask if “The Act of Killing” is a documentary at all. Mr. Morris, who has thought and written about the subject at considerable length, has no doubts.
“Of course it’s a documentary,” he said. “Documentary is not about form, a set of rules that are either followed or not, it’s an investigation into the nature of the real world, into what people thought and why they thought what they thought.”
But Mr. Oppenheimer offered a more nuanced view. He distinguishes between the observational style of the film’s first half and what comes after it pivots to the re-enactments.
“I think it almost stops being a documentary altogether,” he said. “It becomes a kind of hallucinatory aria, a kind of fever dream.” At that point, he added, the film “transcends documentary” and becomes a strange hybrid creation.