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Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Act Of Killing - by Silvia Bombardini


Dear Shaded Viewers and Diane,


Much had been said about The Act of Killing and to such unanimous extent, that when I finally had the chance to go for a screening a few weeks ago at Hackney Picturehouse, I couldn't help but walk in with great expectations, if of them I was vaguely suspicious: great expectations seldom are, after all, a promising mind-set to sit through a film. I should not have worried though. While I can safely say that Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary of the imagination was not like anything I could have possibly expected, it remains one of the most striking, terrifying, unforgettable pieces of filmmaking I've ever held my breath through.


Set in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Oppenheimer's film unveils the terrible truth of a national genocide, as shamefully unheard-of in our Western countries as it was never really hidden in its own land. But it's more than that; not only unpunished but the 1965-66 massacres are instead a source of pride among the aging, welcoming gangsters that still today walk around freely, and warmly greet the American director who thought so well as to make a film about their youth. Former death squad leader Anwar Congo is Oppenheimer's main character, and he knows something about cinema himself: before the attempted coup which allowed and encouraged their killing spree, he used to resell movie tickets with his gang, and claims to be a great fan of Al Pacino. But then he moved on to kill with his own hands over 1000 supposed communists, he recalls, and shows us how.


In fact, seeing how excited they were in front of the cameras, Oppenheimer invited Anwar and his group to play with them for a bit: they were to re-enact those scenes of torture and slaughter in their Hollywood style of choice, dressing up as victims themselves and casting fellow citizens to fill all the roles. This might sound unnecessarily gruesome, and more than a little vulgar, and I won't lie, it often was. A particularly distressing moment is when they restage the burning of a village. "The whole world will see this," one of them muses, pleased. Then "London, England! Forget Jakarta, Jakarta’s nothing!" and I swear I felt a shiver running through our seats, at the idea that these mass-murderers were putting up a show, just for us here to see.


Yet a few scenes later, while still petrified by what we've just witnessed, the subtle, unsettling logic behind Oppenheimer's idea starts to seep through. "I never thought it would look so bad" Anwar murmurs when shown the footage. Later on, when he is supposed to play the part of one of his prisoners, Anwar finds that he can't go through. Seeing himself again, on his tiny tv screen, he addresses Oppenheimer behind the camera in a whisper, "Did the people I tortured feel what I do here?". And this is, I reckon, the most powerful, terrible moment of The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer captures on camera the very instant when a man, who by politics and public fear has lived to his seventies nestled in lies, gets a first glimpse of the concepts of wrong, and evil, and the insurmountable weight of his own actions. What we see is not regret, not yet, not exactly, but the frightening dawn of self-doubt. "Have I sinned? I did this to so many people", Anwar pleads.


Much had been said about Oppenheimer's film indeed, blessed by executive producers the likes of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, and analysed along the lines of Hannah Arendt's theory of the Banality of Evil. The director himself has suggested how the gangsters' celebration and pride in the massacres isn't but a shield to protect themselves from what they've done. Still, when the film ended, I've never heard a crowd leaving a movie theatre as speechlessly as we left Hackney Picturehouse, a few weeks ago.


If you wish to you can sign this petition to ask Indonesia’s President to Say Sorry for 1965/66:


Thank you,



Posted by Silvia Bombardini at 07:58 PM | Permalink


An amazing documentary, thanks for your

Posted by: DP | Sep 29, 2013 11:58:17 PM

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