DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
With the year drawing to a close I think it is safe to say that watching The Act of Killing has been the most profound viewing experience of 2013 for me.
My country has a troubled relationship with Indonesia. We have colonized and exploited that country for a long time in the past. For Indonesian people here, that is still an open wound. The historical significance of that period for people living in Indonesia, however, is not something that many people of this generation are aware of, as brutal and demeaning as that period was.
The murders of 1 million communists and Chinese in 1965, however, is something instilled in the Indonesian psyche and is still a big part of every day life there. The Act of Killing explores that period in Indonesian history, the impact it has on modern life and delves deep into the minds of some of the people responsible for so many deaths in that one horrific year.
Filmmaker Oppenheimer has spent some 5 years filming in Indonesia, getting to know these characters, these unpunished mass murderers. He noticed the enormous amount of pride these men had in the horrible acts they performed. To lay that haughty pride bare, he brilliantly invited them to make a movie about that period, to have them re-enact their deeds. Oppenheimer's film documents that process and the interviews he conducted while filming.
The result is terrifying, infuriating, sickening, intriguing, frustrating and above all devastating. These pompous murderers are some of the vilest human beings I have ever had the misfortune of tainting my retina with. The pride and misguided glory they feel and the joyful reminiscing when asked about how they used to go about killing people truly shows man's innate ability to be the most disgusting animals on this planet, captured in a way I have never seen before. I was shocked by the level of corruption present in Indonesian politics, a seemingly direct result of the '65-'66 killings. Political parties and paramilitary groups started working together then, enlisting gangsters and petty criminals. The shocking thing this documentary shows is that this still goes on and worse, all involved are so full of themselves they have no problem with it all being filmed.
When you realize this, it is not too difficult to understand that many involved in making this film are listed as anonymous on the end credits. This group of filmmakers deserves our sincerest respect. They are fearless, surrounding themselves with criminals and mass murderers and exposing them for what they are. That amount of dedication and fearless devotion is something I am deeply in awe of.
At the centre of everything lies the journey of one man called Anwar. He allegedly killed over 1000 people. It is clear from the beginning that he and Oppenheimer have a special relationship. Anwar is the only person who while filming and re-enacting his past crimes is slowly starting to feel remorse, culminating in a couple of scenes near the end in which we see a man physically manifesting repentance and grief over his past actions. He is still a proud murderer, but there seems to be a tiny speck of humanity there. Oppenheimer does not want us to feel sorry for him though, he is not concerned with that. He records without judgement, only gently giving his own stance in two occasions, one that results in one of the most ridiculous justifications of mass murder you'll ever hear and one that reduces a man to tears.
A writer whose name eludes me once wrote: Man can never become an animal. He stumbles over the animal, straight into the abyss. The Act of Killing is that sentence put to film. It'll leave you questioning our species, desperately seeking for a tiny speck of light somewhere. It is essential viewing, an unbelievably important film and the best I have seen this year.