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When the Indonesian government was overthrown in 1965, a small-time gangster, Anwar Congo, and his hooligan friends were hired to lead anti-communist death squads in the mass murder of over a million people. It was one of the most overlooked genocides in recent history. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (working with Christine Cynn and another anonymous Indonesian co-director) asks Anwar, now an elderly and revered political hero, to re-enact the killings in the style of the Hollywood gangster films that inspired some of his more creative executions. As he watches the re-enactments, Anwar finds himself haunted by his actions, while his friends continue to justify the events.

 Act of Killing
The popular consensus states that we are living in a ‘golden era’ of documentary filmmaking. But, too often, it feels more like the market is so saturated that the odds are just in favour of quality products being releasing alongside a torrent of garbage. Anyone with a Hulu Plus or Netflix subscription can tell you that socially conscious, independently produced documentaries are a dime a dozen (much less if you actually do the math). Even the good ones tend to be depressingly interchangeable in their form and content. Stylistically, most modern documentaries fall into three categories – Ken Burns-styled retrospectives with endless slideshows and talking heads (‘Screensaver’ documentaries), Michael Moore-inspired stunt/prank-based ‘gotcha’ journalism (sometimes spiced up with cheap animated sequences), and rough collections of real-life moments captured off the cuff and edited into a vague narrative. Sadly, films that depart from these stringent frameworks are overwhelmed by gimmick, cheapening the subject matter and dulling their impact. Very few truly unique documentaries escape the pattern, making Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing all the more special.

Over an eight-year period, Oppenheimer grew his film from the seed of a typical compilation of interviews and refined it into something more subversive and visually compelling. First, he stopped framing the story from the point of the view of the victims. Then, he consolidated a series of over 40 interviews with braggart mass murderers into a film based largely around a central character, Anwar. Anwar’s friends and colleagues add texture and reactionary contrast to the subject matter, but it is his arc that creates the film’s narrative. The reenactment aspect initially appears to be surrealistic window-dressing, but, as historical facts are revealed (via unstructured interviews), the pomp and circumstance of ongoing political propaganda and the make-believe of mobster intimidation tactics begin to blend into this film-within-a-film. The line between fact and fiction is blurred. In a waterlogged market, this arthouse-esque technique is utterly fresh, giving the brutal subject matter a palatable and creative framework without trivializing it.

 Act of Killing
This approach is not entirely without precedence, though – Oppenheimer appears to have taken some inspiration from Mondo movies. Sometimes referred to as ‘Shockumentaries,’ the Mondo cycle began in the ‘60s when exploitation mavens Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara & Franco Prosperi made Mondo Cane (aka: A Dog’s World, 1962). Mondo Cane was popular across the globe and soon Jocopetti, Cavara & Prosperi’s formula became a fad. The original Mondo films sensationalized taboo subject matter and often revolved around international ‘oddities,’ though ‘westernized’ subcultures were also covered on occasion ( Mondo Mod, Mondo Hollywood). The Italian brand of Mondo grew more violent in hopes of making money from an increasingly desensitized audience, which culminated in Jacopetti & Prosperi’s Africa Addio (released in America as Africa: Blood and Guts, 1966). Africa Addio featured a 140-minute smorgasbord of carnage, including animal slaughter, bloody religious rites, and, most notably, footage from the Zanzibar revolution and the Mau Mau Uprising. Jacopetti & Prosperi reportedly re-created many of these events for the camera, a common part of the Mondo brand that led into the most reviled documentary subgenre – the Death Film. The more grotesque Mondos and Mondo-like Death Films ( Faces of Death and its sequel, most famously) haven’t aged particularly well, so their dramatized violence tends to look less than realistic than it did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But Africa Addio’s political executions were suspicious/convincing enough to drive Italian officials to prosecute Jacopetti for staging these murders (he was eventually acquitted).  

Whether true or unfounded, these rumours create parallels between Africa Addio and The Act of Killing (parallels that are all the more fascinating when the dates of the original events are accounted for – Jacopetti & Prosperi’s film was shot the same year the Indonesian purge was occurring). What Oppenheimer has done (in part) is to make a sort of deconstructed Mondo (not to be confused with an indictment of Mondo, which is what Ruggero Deodato did with Cannibal Holocaust). He follows the ‘rules’ by restaging and sensationalizing violent events that affected a foreign culture, then warps the formula by coaxing the people that committed the atrocities into being part of the reproduction. The Mondos exploited horrible truths and were taken as reality, simply because they were put to film. The Act of Killing openly acknowledges and, in fact, frames itself around simulation, but creates a deeper, more affecting truth than plain documentation ever could have achieved. Though I assume it wasn’t necessarily their intention, Oppenheimer and his crew finally legitimized one of cinema’s most reviled subgenres as something more than a cheap, xenophobic thrill.

Note: I had the choice of watching the original theatrical cut or the new, extended director’s cut for this review. Because I assumed I’d only have the stomach to deal with it once in a 72-hour period, I chose not to watch both, but assumed that the longer version would be the better option. As of this moment, I don’t know exactly what the differences between the cuts are (there are a few mentions of changes in the commentary), but did find the 166-minute version a little excessive and I imagine the events would flow better at 122 minutes.

 Act of Killing

Video


Oppenheimer, his co-directors, and his small group of cinematographers (including Carlos Arango De Montis, Lars Skree, and more people that wish to remain anonymous) appear to have used a few different digital camera rigs while shooting The Act of Killing. They were also at the mercy of the elements and some sequences are viewed via television. As a result, this 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray (or both, since the two cuts are spread across two discs) is generally inconsistent. The basic look is pretty clean with minimal digital noise and big, bright, blown-out white levels. The brightness blooms out into some of the details, but is surprisingly soft, adding an eerie, ethereal feel to the entire film. These soft, blooming whites also affect the darker sequences, which are otherwise subtler in terms of contrast. Here, background details don’t entirely disappear into the shadows like they do into the sunlight. Clarity comes and goes depending on location and the camera crew’s ability to pull focus quickly enough to capture sharper images. At best, details are crisp and realistic with minor (mostly lens-based) distortions. At worst, the image is a bit flat and the background’s blur bleeds into the otherwise sharp foreground elements. There are also some shots that are almost overwhelmed with thick digital grain, but these are much less common. Colours are vibrant, even if the pastel-laced palette doesn’t lend itself to the richest representation and the bleeding highlights cause edge haloes. The only compression issues I’m noticing that may not be a part of the original material are some banding effects in backdrop blends and occasional macro blocking within the brightest reds.

 Act of Killing

Audio


The Act of Killing is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Indonesian with removable English subtitles. Because it is a documentary, the majority of the sound is the stuff the crew caught while filming, likely with a single boom, so almost everything is low-key and dialogue-based. Even when the film makes its way outdoors, where street noise would normally take over a soundtrack, things settle in the center channel. The only times I really noticed the audio leaking from outside of the middle were scenes in nature and the sounds of wildlife (birds, bugs, frogs) overwhelm the rest of the track. Elin Øyen Vister’s musical score is given more range throughout the stereo, surround, and LFE channels, but is also rarely utilized. The interlude of ‘Born Free’ is easily the loudest and richest moment. This is a fine and clear track that is not designed to be particularly impressive.

 Act of Killing

Extras


The extras begin on disc one, which features the theatrical cut and the following:
  • Democracy Now interview with Oppenheimer (45:30, HD) – This dry interview helps contextualize the film within the historical events it covers (the Western world’s role in the story isn’t really discussed, even during the longer cut) and allows Oppenheimer some space to discuss the organic creative process that turned The Act of Killing from a standard historical documentary to a post-modernist and truly unique motion picture. We also learn that the film has had a positive effect on the Indonesian government.
  • VICE interviews with Errol Morris and Werner Herzog (12:30, HD) – The executive producers discuss the film within a slightly fluffier framework, but their input is nonetheless valuable.
  • Four deleted scenes (11:30, HD) – none of which ware included in the director’s cut.
  • Trailers for other Drafthouse releases

Disc two features the director’s cut and, with it, Oppenheimer and Herzog’s commentary track. This is a full-bodied track, despite the epic run-time. The Democracy Now interview is a more efficient explanation of the behind-the-scenes process and historical precedence, but there’s plenty of value in Oppenheimer discussing things as we’re watching them, along with quite a bit of extra info concerning the film’s eight-year evolution (not to mention more in-depth stories about some of the ‘supporting’ characters). Herzog does a fantastic job interviewing the director and begins asking Oppenheimer seemingly unrelated personal questions, similar to the ones he’d ask the subject of one of his own documentaries. In fact, as the track proceeds, Herzog’s presence grows more vital and the commentary transforms into a sort of secondary documentary experience.

 Act of Killing

Overall


The Act of Killing is a rich, layered, and deceptively honest documentary experience, despite its decoratively cinematic trappings. A more industrious critic could probably write an entire essay on each of the participants and their eccentric behaviors (the guy that collects tacky crystal chotskies, for example), the deeper meaning behind the executioners being influenced by violent movies, or perhaps the parallels that can be drawn between this situation and modern American foreign policy. It’s even disarmingly funny at times and, like all great films, will likely hold different meanings for different people without risking the intended message. Drafthouse’s Blu-ray is somewhat limited in terms of video and audio quality, simply due to the quality of the original material, but features two versions of the film, an informative director’s interview, and a fantastic commentary featuring both Oppenheimer and producer Werner Herzog. This is a highly recommended release all-around.  

 Act of Killing

 Act of Killing

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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