By Daniel Barnes
*This review originally ran on March 6, 2014. Reprinted in anticipation of Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up film The Look of Silence.
“More Profound Than Mere Fact”
One of the great, unique, often intangible and sometimes scary potentials of the film medium is the way that cinematic artifice can achieve something more profound than mere fact. We usually talk about realism in the sense of grimy settings and handheld cameras. However, the manufactured beauty of set-bound stylists like Hitchcock, Almodovar, Max Ophuls, and Vincente Minnelli supersedes a mundane depiction of reality and captures a more transcendent truth.
That’s why I argue that Brian De Palma’s deranged rock-and-roll fantasy The Phantom of the Paradise offers a more accurate depiction of the music industry than La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story or any other musical biopic. Likewise, John Frankenheimer’s surrealist political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which connects the veins of political corruption to a toxic heart of psychological deviance, presents a more realistic look at politics than grim, stiff-necked dramas like Lincoln and The Ides of March.
Among so many other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed by Christine Cynn and “Anonymous” – several key credits here are listed as Anonymous) displays that power of film to transcend reality, even when it’s aiming to pervert it. In the early 1970s, Indonesian death squads often run by street gangsters killed over one million innocent people under the guise of eradicating Communism. Forty years later, not only have they gone un-persecuted for their crimes, they achieved great wealth and influence, and now seek to memorialize their “heroics” on film.
“Movie Theater Gangster”
The central figure is Anwar Congo, a bright-eyed, snowy-haired senior citizen and former “movie theater gangster” best known for creating a more efficient method of slaughtering Communists. Early in the film, he visits the scene of his murders, gleefully demonstrating his bloodless technique of strangling people, and even spontaneously breaking into dance on his victims’ graves. He originally intends to make a film glorifying his war crimes as heroic deeds. However, after experiencing the naked self-discovery of performance, he revisits the same murder scene and can’t stop retching.
This artifice-as-honesty paradox lies at the heart of the best sequence in The Act of Killing. A neighbor of Congo, pulled in for a minor role in the film, tells the killers about discovering and burying his father’s corpse in the wake of the death squads. Knowing that the cameras are recording him talk about his own life, he is self-conscious, and smilingly assures the killers that he only intends to offer research, not criticism. When the cameras roll, that same neighbor assumes the role of a tortured “Communist.” The intensity of his performance grasps at something more genuine and personal than simple storytelling can convey.