Review of ‘The Act of Killing’
What a bizarre and disturbing film. It was amazing, and definitely an interesting take on the documentary genre, but man did it give me nightmares.
I had no idea what I was in for at the beginning. The opening sequence is so strange and beautiful, and then all of a sudden we’re thrown into this terrifying ugly world of men who boast about the atrocities they’ve committed.
I’m not sure if this was deliberate on the part of the director or cinematographer, but it seems that the quality of the film starts out pretty average. During the rally and the first time the men spend on the death roof, it looks like I could have filmed it. But as the story deepens and the horrific acts of violence are revealed, the film quality gets more and more beautiful and surreal.
One question I had about this film was how the director got them to do all this stuff. I wonder about the ethics of it—did he tell them he was making a movie and not a documentary? Were they actually making a movie with their own money and he just decided to film the process? Did they understand that what they were doing would be seen by the entire world? They mention several times that this movie will be seen not just in Indonesia but “in London!” Which makes me think they knew, but I still don’t fully get how they would think this was a good idea.
And speaking of bad ideas, why would anyone think acting our their PTSD nightmares would go well for them? That’s one of the reasons I’m not sure I trust Anwar’s conversion at the end. The other men don’t strike me as particularly intelligent, but from the beginning, it seemed to me that Anwar was different. Not different in that he regretted his actions, because clearly he didn’t, but more clever than the others, and ultimately perhaps more dangerous. That he told Oppenheimer about his dreams in the first place seems like a deliberate ploy for sympathy from the audience.
It seems to me that while Anwar may have felt a little sorry for what he did, that regret was based on a selfish desire to feel better, to rid himself of guilt, and not on any kind of empathetic epiphany about the consequences of his actions. His confession to Oppenhiemer that “I did that to so many people, now I understand how terrible it must have been,” felt hollow to me. I’m not sure why. And the climax of the movie on the roof didn’t seem very genuine either. Like I said I can’t put my finger on why I don’t believe it, but as I watched that scene I couldn’t help but think Anwar had heard somewhere that people who were guilty, sad and disgusted with themselves sometimes throw up, so he figured he might as well try it. His retching seemed too easy, too simple a solution to the problem the movie seems to be posing: these men have no awareness of what they’ve done, what they’ve really DONE to both the men, women and children they tortured, raped and murdered, or the families those people left behind. Being a smart cookie, I think Anwar picked up on the greater message and decided to play along as a way of looking better in the end. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know, but I’d like to hear how he reacted to the film, or if he even saw it.
I know Oppenheimer’s crew was made up of mostly Indonesians, and that there was also an Indonesian co-director working with him, but these people have had to stay anonymous for their own safety. I think it’s interesting that Oppenheimer is the one getting all the accolades and credit, while his team has had to stay silent on their part in all of it. I wonder if it would have more of an effect inside Indonesia if these people spoke out and talked about their involvement. It’s one thing for a foreigner to make this film, because people within the country who want to ignore what’s going on can pass it off as an outsider getting it wrong. But it’s not so easy to discount something made by people who live alongside this kind of thing every day. I hope one day the co-director and the rest of the crew are able to be open about their role in making this movie.
Things have been going pretty smoothly with Antoine. We spent last night with him at the Life After Justice house, and he gave us a tour of the place, showed us what he’s been doing, and what still needs to be done. It’s amazing how far he’s come with the construction even in the last month since I’ve been to the house. He’s literally doing everything with his own two hands, and there’s a lot to be done. The kitchen has been transformed from a junk-filled hell hole to something that actually looks like a kitchen, and he’s started to move some of his things inside. He and his baby pitbull, Coco, spend most days and nights holed up inside, working alone and making tremendous progress. We asked him when he has time to sleep and he said he doesn’t, but he pays that no mind
"This is my girlfriend right here," he said, patting the molded walls in the basement. "I spend all my time with her."
What we need to work on is getting him out of what I like to call his Jesus-personna. Hanging out with him with the cameras rolling, he does a really good job of showcasing his selfless and giving side. And he’s definitely selfless and giving: he’s letting his friend Charles and his mother move into the unit below him for free, and he lent another friend a trailor last night while we were there, but there’s more to this person than what he’s giving out. We heard some of it on Wednesday when we were at the Howard Area Community Center, and a fight broke out between Antoine and one of the men he was mentoring.
He said they eventually hashed it out during the mentor session, but that incident showed us he harbors some anger inside that he rarely lets out. He told us he was especially upset on Wednesday because of an incident earlier in the day where a police officer lied to try and get him in trouble. As someone who spent time behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, he’s hypersensitive to the possibility of that kind of thing happening again. He doesn’t trust the system, and believes the problems stem from the greed of the US government.
He also is very coy when talking about his children, I don’t know how many times I asked him about them last night and got roundabout answers, but as he gets more and more comfortable with us, I think we will start to get more honest answers.