Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Act of Killing

If there’s anything worse than a dumb documentary, it’s a dumb pseudo-documentary, and that’s what Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is. Oppenheimer became buddy-buddy with two Indonesian death squad members who helped the army kill more than a million Chinese immigrants and alleged communists during the military coup of 1965. He asks them to recreate some of the murders on film, in whatever manner they choose, and these guys, who view themselves in the mold of Serpico and Scarface, choose to do so in the form of an outrĂ© mash-up of spaghetti Westerns with “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” 

They have a hard time enlisting locals to play in these reenactments, for several reasons. First and foremost, the men are still feared members of Indonesia’s 3-million-strong paramilitary organization, a major (and completely corrupt) force in a society where for half a century might has made right. Second, many of the locals’ parents and family members were the men’s actual victims. And third, the god-awful movie the guys think they’re making leaves many of the locals laughing at the periphery of the frame. 

“The Act of Killing” put me to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. Eventually, I couldn’t take one more twenty-minute segment that begins with the men citing their supposed cinematic influences (mostly movies that came out ten years after their actual atrocities – a slipup Oppenheimer doesn’t even mention, let alone call them on) and ends with one of them made up as a giant female fish watching while six mermaids hula out of an abandoned airship.

It’s a documentary devoid of sociopolitical context. Someone whose only knowledge of Indonesia came from the film couldn’t tell you why the death squads targeted the Chinese and the communists, the country’s current form of government, the role of the military and paramilitary, or anything about Indonesia’s Islamism or its world’s-largest Muslim population. Its insights are limited to the depravity of its subjects and the idea that the winners write history and determine who committed war crimes. Fine, we get it.

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