Is there a point when a filmmaker crosses the line? Is there a point where the effort to tell a story does nothing more than sensationalize it? Is it possible to tell the most horrific stories in life without, on some level, sensationalizing both the stories and the people involved with them?
These questions may be an inevitable result that arises from first-time documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer's profound and disturbing The Act of Killing, a film about the Indonesian massacres that followed the overthrow of President Sukarno in 1965 and reportedly claimed somewhere from 500,000 to 2.5 million lives before it was done.
If this were an act of fiction, the American public would either embrace the film as yet another action flick or they would be appalled at the ways in which the two featured men at times seem to be glorified.
This isn't an act of fiction. This is the truth. This is the truth of a story that has been little reported and it's the truth of a story that would have no chance to come to life if not for such an ingenious, brave, slightly insane and even a little offensive way of telling the story. The Act of Killing largely centers around two men - Anwar is a grandfatherly type whom you wouldn't avoid if you were walking down the street. Herman, on the other hand, is an absurdly outrageous man who runs for Parliament with an openly corrupt campaign.
The stories that Anwar and Herman tell are harrowing. They are brutal. They are unforgettable. Heck, they're unbelievable. That could be the brilliance of Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. In offering up a vehicle for these stories to be told, an admittedly bizarre and unfathomable vehicle, Oppenheimer has brought us face to face with the frightening normalcy of evil.
There will be some who consider this experiment in documentary filmmaking to be the worst kind of exploitation. Christian Science Monitor film writer Peter Rainer calls it "a moral crime."
I understand, but I disagree.
I understand, because I too have watched this film through the eyes of a Western moviegoer. Through my own cultural lens, everything that occurs in The Act of Killing is outrageous and offensive and inhumane and Oppenheimer's willingness to cater to the creative whims of those who perpetrated such actions can only be seen as exploiting the lives of thousands if not millions of people.
It has only been days ago that we Americans were up in arms over Rolling Stone magazine's glorification of alleged Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Indeed, we were up in arms and yet the issue that was not carried by major retailers still doubled in sales.
The Act of Killing doesn't paint the story of the Indonesian massacres in pretty pictures nor does it gloss over the reality of what occurred. There may be an argument that Oppenheimer allows the story to be glorified, but in doing so he also creates a safety net where these men tell stories that a straightforward documentarian would have never captured. It doesn't matter their egos, their desires for attention or their belief in their righteousness because without this unique vehicle for truth-telling, this story would never come to light at least not with the depth and passion and feeling and intelligence that it does here.
Oppenheimer agrees to direct a movie about the actions of Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and others in the 1960's and he agrees to have each of them, the real perpetrators, playing the leading roles in the film and having final say in the stories that are told.
Rehearsals become psychodramas.
The garish make-up reveals wounds that haven't healed.
These men are free men. These men, in some cases, hold political office and live esteemed and successful lives. They have, for the most part, not paid for any of what most Americans would consider to be crimes. Anwar Congo himself claims to have killed 1,000 people with the vast majority having been one at a time strangled to death by piano wire.
Today? He shares the stories like they are cherished childhood memories and with an abundance of laughter and an affection for those helping him act out his little torture stories. He doesn't ever project remorse, though he certainly at moments has a certain solemn presence. For the most part, he stands quietly in the background while his stout and far more gregarious friend, Herman, creates stories and images and visuals that are much larger than life.
A few years back, there was a documentary called Nanking that quietly recreated some of its stories in a mostly reader's theater fashion. The Act of Killing amps up the volume on such an approach 1,000 times with men who committed a horrid genocide acting out the stories in a style that will be more likely to make you think of Soderbergh's Bubble.
It's garish. It's haunting. It's, and I can't even believe I'd say this, funny.
At times, it's really funny.
Mostly, The Act of Killing is one of the most extraordinarily effective examples of documentary filmmaking that I've seen because it weaves together a grand experiment into an unbelievable yet necessary story of truth and it produces it in such a way that even when you try you will never, ever forget it.
While it may seem like Oppenheimer is allowing his subjects to preen and pose, I'd dare say that he's quite directly become the master of their own domain. He's gained their trust and allowed their stories to be told in their own words and visuals while leading them down a path with far more revelation and far more self-revelation than one could ever possibly imagine. As the film progresses, Oppenheimer gently guides it towards an intimate examination of the nature of evil, remorse, guilt and the basic concepts of right and wrong. If there's a weakness in the film it's that, maybe just maybe, Oppenheimer needed to address at least briefly how all of this plays out on the national psyche' of Indonesia.
But, then again, maybe not. Maybe we needed this to be about two men. Maybe we needed this to be about the simplicity and everyday nature of evil. Maybe we needed to simply hear these stories and know that such people could so very easily be among us in the forms of a grandfatherly type or a seemingly gregarious man with a larger than life laugh.
The Act of Killing picked up two of contemporary cinema's most critically acclaimed documentarians, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, as Executive Producers for the film and has just begun an arthouse/indie run through the U.S. with a scheduled Indianapolis opening on August 9, 2013 for an exclusive engagement at Keystone Art Cinema.
Do you want to see it?
You need to see it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic