The Act of Killing ★★★★½

Joshua Oppenheimer's film approaches incredibly dark material with a strikingly off-beat approach - one that allows for an unexpected amount of humour and shocking self-exploration for its subjects. The Act of Killing is a new benchmark in the documentary genre, so well put together in spite of how bizarre and ridiculous much of what it documents can be. Unadorned with soundtrack or narration, the film seems to be a product manifested of its own methodology.

I put off seeing this film for so long because of its surreal imagery (I thought it was going to be a cultural trip I needed to be in the right mindset for) and its historical context centering around mass genocide and torture. But the unflinching success of this film lies in the way that these aspects are explored, letting murderers and executioners - one in particular, named Anwar Congo - tell their own story as they have interpreted and embellished it in their own minds. They are provided what appears to be free reign to reenact scenes from their own past, all of which demonstrate how disconnected their personas and psyches have become from the acts they undertook so long ago.

In these surreal set pieces with lavish scenery, ornate costume and pure symbolism (whether intentional or not), the historical narrative of the film finds a way to distance itself from the horror at its core. That would seem counter-productive, but in so doing, it allows for an impressive accessibility and even relate-ability to its stars. Take a moment to dwell on how impressive a feat it is to be induced with feelings of sadness, humility and even empathy for mass-executioners with over 1,000 kills to their name.

It's in moments of having Anwar experience his own torture methods first-hand, revisiting the locations of mass killings, injecting himself into elaborate film scenes of his own devising, or even just spending a few minutes with his grandchildren that we see a real human under the layers if brutality and evil.

Though Anwar clearly shows some unresolved internal conflict from the beginning of the film - he talks openly about his nightmares - the film's methods begin to chip away at the layers protecting Anwar from directly experiencing remorse or guilt, and his reconciliation of the horrors he has inflicted is a journey that is surprising and complex in equal measure.

This is a powerful film that exposes a great deal about a region of the world which I know next to nothing about - and certainly less about its history. But its true gift is how it exposes the absolute worst of human behaviour, capable of incredible and senseless atrocity, for the raw humanity at its core.

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