Where does one start a review of The Act of Killing? A surreal documentary about one of the most heinous men in the history of the world, it circumvents the well-worn paths of crime documentaries and instead forges its own. It is difficult to watch, whilst also feeling natural and making you feel oddly at ease during its run-time. It is unlike anything you’ve seen. It’ll take you to unexpected places and it is, for better or worse, an experience you’ll never forgot.
During 1965, Anwar Congo was one of the most ruthless killers in Indonesia. As a leader of one of the notorious death squads, he was personally responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of men, women and children, with himself claiming to have killed at least 1,000. Now Joshua Oppenheimer, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, has invited Anwar to reflect on his actions in the most peculiar ways. Anwar and ‘gangster’ friends are giving money and a film-crew and asked to film dramatic scenes about their feelings about the genocide. The film-making process opens up Anwar and gets unexpected results.
The Act of Killing has two cuts, the theatrical 115 minute cut and the extended 159 minute cut. I watched the 159 minute cut, which was playing as part of a film festival in my city, and it has left me very cold. I attribute a lot of my negative feelings toward the film purely to the cut I saw, which is far too long and extremely frustrating to sit-through.
The longer cut is gruelling. You feel every minute as the film rolls around the same point and repeats itself constantly in its first two hours. The first 30 minutes perfectly sets-up the film, it introduces you to the crimes committed and the man that committed them in Anwar Congo. In that time Anwar recounts his crimes and describes in detail the different methods he used to murder innocent people, it makes this point clear and then teases you with his film-making reflections. Oppenheimer then continues this focus for another 90 minutes, drilling it home perfectly time and time again, but also alienating the audience you just want to get to the crux of the film.
This isn’t the only mistake Oppenheimer makes with The Act of Killing. When Anwar isn’t telling his stories, the film moves to his friends. Anwar, whilst the keen focus of the documentary, never talks about his family or his life. However, Oppenheimer feels the need to let all of Anwar’s friends have their time to about themselves, their kids, their lives and their goals. It is filler, short and simple, and the point of including it was completely lost on me. Anwar’s reflections are the most pertinent aspect in the film, yet it wastes so much time diverging down irrelevant paths.
When The Act of Killing settles and starts wrapping up in the final 30 minutes, it is by far the most astonishing documentary you’ll witness. Oppenheimer moves the focus purely to Anwar and the production of his film. This section is filled with the scenes Anwar creates, he provides incredible insights as he watches them after production and the result is far beyond what Oppenheimer would ever have dreamed of.
The Act of Killing is exhausting, but well worth the effort. Despite my negativity to its editing, pacing and direction, there is still a rare quality to the documentary that’ll endear it for decades. Be prepared to be shocked and disturbed, but also be prepared for brilliant insights into the mind of a horrible human being. The Act of Killing is quite simply a surreal experience, it is a true original and the access and information Anwar provides is astonishing. Do see this, in whatever form you can.