Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn
The easiest way to describe The Act of Killing is to say it's a documentary about a few of the individuals who committed terrible crimes during the brutal Indonesian killings of 1965-1966. Director Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make a film about the family members of those killed during the slaughter, but found it wouldn't be safe for him or the documentary's intended subjects. In a horrible twist he discovered it would be far easier to approach the massacre by focusing on the killers instead of the victims. After all, the killers are still in control of the country.
The Act of Killing, then, becomes an experience that, to quote Jewish film critic J. Hoberman, is like "living in a nightmare alternate universe in which the Third Reich won World War II." And the Nazis are more than happy to discuss their methods.
What makes The Act of Killing one of the best documentaries ever made is the formal kink Oppenheimer works into his story. See, he asks Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, two of the self-described gangsters who participated in the killings, to recreate interrogations and murders. With Congo and Koto acting as consultants, directors, and actors, Oppenheimer shoots various scenes of death and destruction. Then he plays them back for Congo and Koto, and we, the viewers, watch their reactions. We hear their feedback. At one point Congo says he wouldn't have worn white pants to kill someone, that you never wear white pants when killing someone.
The dizzying formalism doesn't distract from the film's true subject: empathy. This is about how someone could come to not feel something for another human being so that they could most easily kill that person, and whether or not it's possible to come back from that. Oppenheimer, far from playing the detached God-type figure most documentaries employ, interacts with Congo, prods him and interrogates him. By the film's end, the breakthrough Oppenheimer achieves with Congo is sickening, a testament to the power of cinema and what it means to watch. You will leave the movie changed.