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The Act of Killing (2012)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

What does it feel like to kill a man? To kill a thousand? To be revered for mass murder? These are questions that documentarians Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn ask in the powerful and unsettling doc The Act of Killing, which focuses on old, fat, and white-haired Indonesian gangsters who rose to prominence by leading a North Sumatran death squad in 1965-1966, purging the country of alleged communists in the wake of a failed military coup by the 30th of September Movement. Because the current ruling Pemuda Pancasila regime rose out of the death squads, their genocidal acts are considered heroic.

In an utterly surreal and stomach-turning twist, the gangsters revisit their killing days in re-enactments, full-on stylized movie scenes where they play themselves and their victims with the eagerness of children toying around with a video camera they got for Christmas. Some of these are comically bad, like Z-grade horror flicks. Others are so terrifying that the women and children who are playing the women and children who the death squads once pulled from their burning homes, are visibly terrified. Scenes like these are delicate, as the Pemuda Pancasila, which supports the filming as propaganda to remind challengers how truly medieval they’re willing to get, doesn’t want to come across as bloodthirsty and savage.

The most disturbing thing about The Act of Killing is how human the mass murderers are. In many ways, they appear as genial and unremarkable as your next door neighbor. It appears that anyone, given the right circumstances, could become part of a genocidal machine and devise ways to snuff out life more efficiently and with less mess. The documentary and its re-enactments force reflection, and yet it's little solace to see Anwar, one of the most exalted executioners, struggle with portraying his victims, gag violently when he revisits the roof where he strangled many to death with a wire system he invented, and cry about his fears of being haunted. The dead are dead and wishing it were some other way can never change that. —Justin Monroe

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