News Column

'The Act of Killing': Mass murder revisited

August 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 02--'This is history, this is who we are," says Anwar Congo with considerable pride and no remorse, asked to reexamine -- and then reenact, for the camera -- the atrocities he oversaw as a leader of the Medan death squads in Indonesia of 1965. In The Act of Killing, Congo and his key cohorts blithely recall the murders and tortures they committed. It's like a 50-years-on reunion of frat boys, waxing nostalgic over the drunken revelries of yore.

It is utterly chilling.

Accounts differ, but in the so-called anti-Communist purge that followed the aborted coup of Indonesian president Sukarno, anywhere from 500,000 to one million men, women, and children were killed at the hands of paramilitary forces and gangsters operating under authority of the army. The victims were labeled Communists, but many were not. It was a killing spree on a massive scale, with Congo and his cronies wielding the power -- and the machetes.

Actually, as Congo notes, standing on a balcony where many of the executions took place, metal wire proved more effective, and less messy, than a sword. A film buff who once hawked tickets at a movie house, Congo is an eager participant in director Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary. So eager, in fact, that he, the rotund Herman Koto, and others from this war-crimes brotherhood happily don makeup, prosthetics, and costumes, restaging their horror shows as if they were scenes from classic Hollywood genre pics.

And so, the perpetrators of this human nightmare become their own reenactors, demonstrating interrogation and mutilation techniques in a vintage film noir setting, or riding the range in an ersatz western, even doing an elaborate, exotic song-and-dance number.

Bizarre and unnerving, The Act of Killing boasts Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as executive producers. You can see why these two documentarians, whose work captures the tabloid surrealness of the real world, would be fascinated by The Act of Killing and its cast of cutthroats.

It is fascinating -- and frightening.

The Act of Killng **--(Out of four stars)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. With Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Syamsul Arifin, and Herman Koto. In Indonesian with subtitles. Distributed by Drafthouse Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Bourse

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, On Movies Online, at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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