Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Video review: "The Act of Killing"

“The Act of Killing” is one of the best documentary films I’ve seen in a while, even though it diverges quite a bit from the standard format of journalistic exploration.

Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, who co-directed the film with a third unnamed person, wanted to take a look at the brutal death squads that purged Indonesia of communists in 1965 after a failed military coup. But rather than simply interviewing the gangsters and paramilitary types of who led the bloodletting, the filmmakers conscript them in the process of telling their stories.

The chief subject is Anwar Congo, now an elderly man revered as a father figure by the same brutal regime that still holds the reins of power. Anwar and his ilk have never been held to account for the torture and murder of untold thousands, so they see nothing wrong with reenacting their deeds for the camera.

The men seem strangely oblivious at first, smiling while they talk in great detail about how they beat, shot or strangled people to death. Later, the gangsters will even step behind the camera to recreate these horrid scenes in the style of their favorite American movies.

It’s at this point that Anwar and his cohorts seem to discover a measure of regret, or at least cognizance about what they did. In an amazing moment, one of the gangsters reveals that his stepfather, an ethnic Chinese, was among those who disappeared. This man then goes on to give an Oscar-quality performance as one of those being tortured.

Watching “The Act of Killing” is a disturbing but enlightening experience. By eschewing the modus operandi of the documentary film, this important film provides a unique and unforgettable lesson in the loss of humanity.

The video is being released with a host of extra features, including a director’s cut that is 43 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The latter includes a commentary track by Werner Herzog, who served as executive producer along with fellow documentary veteran Errol Morris. Herzog and Morris also hold a conversation in a featurette.

There’s also a “Master Class” feature with Oppenheimer on the Blu-ray edition.


Extras: B-plus


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