The Act of Killing

From Congo to Indonesia, doubts about the depiction of conflict

Coincidence? I think not. The main character in The Act of Killing, the documentary movie that is being promoted in the above trailer, is called Anwar Congo, a notorious Indonesian warlord who massacred communists in the 1960’s. I saw this problematic film hot on the heels of viewing the art documentary/installation on militias in Congo at the Irish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. My question then as now was: Is it exploitative, does it glamourise conflict? For me, the jury is still out on The Enclave, Richard Mosse’s Congo project, although a Congo-going friend and colleague outspokenly thinks so. But I have no such doubts about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. I find it tilting the wrong way, not just because of the deeds of Anwar Congo but because of the filmmaker’s choices. As a journalist, I sympathise with the difficulty involved in bringing horrendous stories to the attention of a larger public. But in this case, I feel that a line has been crossed and that, very much in the spirit of this age, storytelling veers into self-aggrandisement (And yes, I realise the irony of making such an accusation on a blog, the ultimate engine of self-promotion). The numerous times that the killer, Congo, directly addresses the filmmaker by name, Joshua this, Josh that, is in itself revealing. I assume that it could have been easily edited out. After all, Joshua has seven years worth of material. The most problematic part of the movie is the ending when a money shot sequence of Congo retching in regret offers the kind of redemptive finish that would make even a Hollywood exec blush. Joshua tries to play it cool and inoculate himself against charges of pandering by pointing out to Congo that his victims felt a lot worse than he does re-enacting their suffering – this is after all just a film while they knew they were going to die. The regretful retching comes after that, though, and goes on for quite a while. Together with the ambivalence of the rest of the movie, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It feels cheap and empty. If Congo really feels bad, what are the consequences? Does he kill himself? Does he ask his victims for forgiveness? Does he give himself up to be tried for war crimes? And if not, why do we not see him leading his life as if nothing happened? I wonder if this as either a lazy choice by the director or an easy melodramatic device. As it stands, it gives the impression of at least partial redemption for a mass murderer and as such confirms my unease about the rest of the movie. But yes, like The Enclave, it’s beautifully shot.

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Ferry

Journalist, analyst, aspiring thinker.

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