Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, "Anonymous"
If someone you'd just met and had a wonderful chat with admitted that he had once killed dozens of people, would you be able to continue speaking with him? Or, for that matter, allow yourself to be entertained by his playful side as he charmed you with everything he's done since the murders?
Those are just two of the many questions that power the profoundly disturbing documentary The Act of Killing, a film in which the horrific somehow becomes banal, the real difficult to believe. Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia, located a former right wing paramilitary baddie, named Anwar Congo, and presented him with a gutsy challenge: recreate some of the homicides Congo and his colleagues committed against Chinese people deemed "communists" back in the 1960s for both a feature film and Oppenheimer's making-of doc about their production. These days, Congo is a friendly, loving grandfather who's harboring sadness over his past actions, which prompts him to take part in Oppenheimer's work as a means to finally expose the brutal truth.
The Act of Killing is deeply surreal, capturing a sense of unsettling comedy by showing how much Congo's group of one-time killers, rapists, and torturers have playing dress-up on a movie set. Oppenheimer and his collaborators (Christine Cynn and "anonymous") wisely just let the subjects speak for themselves without utilizing any too-clever editing trickery or invasive newsreel footage to sway viewers' opinions as— if there's any response to The Act of Killing's featured players other than complicated discontent. In one moment, a father takes his wife and daughter to the mall for sweet, endearing family time, but minutes later he's casually reflecting upon the time when he walked down the street and offed every Chinese person he saw.
As Congo and his associates reveal in the film, the countless hours spent watching "gangster movies" inadvertently helped them to rationalize their crimes—the characters on screen in Hollywood releases seemed so cool that whenever they killed others, they felt just as cool. But in the present day, and this is where The Act of Killingreally soars, Congo receives the opportunity to live in the victim's shoes, portraying one of the innocents in a scene for the movie within the movie. It's during that instance where the monster's eyes truly open, though Oppenheimer doesn't go for the easy move of giving Congo a chance to repent—forgiveness isn't an option anymore.
Through The Act of Killing and its matter-of-fact depiction of mankind's worst members, the notion that, for some, taking another person's life can be as effortless as chewing gum is as amazingly startling as realizing that, for others, seeking redemption is utterly hopeless.