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The Act of Killing parses memory and violence

Director Joshua Oppenheimer has made a surreal documentary of Indonesia's violent past

In the devastating and surreal new documentary The Act of Killing filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer gradually brings to light a mass murder frenzy that convulsed Indonesia during its 1965 military coup. Young paramilitary thugs, empowered by the right wing and with the complicity of the West, systematically slaughtered upward of one million people. The country today is still so scarred and the work was so total that the killers today are presented there as heroes and their presumed communist victims as horrible villains who merited extermination. Oppenheimer's documentary is ostensibly an opportunity for the now aging thugs to recreate their actions on the big screen exactly as they choose. As their own brutal gangster personas were partly inspired by the American movies they idolized, the paramilitaries now jump at the opportunity to present themselves as cowboys, rebels, even as Scarface-style anti-heroes. But it all inevitably starts to fall apart: a camera, even an idolizing cinematic one, is still a camera, and they realize there is simply no way to spin their rape and murder sprees in a way that will make them seem even moderately sympathetic. Some of the "gangsters," as they proudly refer to themselves, are frank and sanguinely comfortable with their murderous deeds hanging about them, while others show flashes of remorse. Some wonder how such lapses in sanity can be so neatly compartmentalized away throughout life.

The film zeroes in on one of the killers, Anwar Congo, who is experiencing the deepest sense of remorse and self-revulsion. Re-enacting a scene of torture and strangulation is so overwhelming for Congo that he wretches and nearly faints. But when he's watching the finished filmed scene on the television in his living room, he happily runs to wake up his two grandsons so they can watch what a good job grandpa does. It's a horrible testimony to the transformative power of cinema: the movies are the place where the strings swell, the shadows deepen. It's a vivid dream in which everything is given a heart-quickening, glamorous gloss because it is made of light. No one would be quite capable of predicting the end to this mad documentary — the pretty-as-a-wedding-cake confectionary cinematic scene of forgiveness and reconciliation the killers devise — but somehow, deeply, darkly, one knows it's coming.

The Act of Killing is a monument to the power of the documentarian's art: Surely it is one of the most significant films ever made. It is unparalleled in the way it examines human depravity and, perhaps even more devastatingly, the pointlessness of remorse in a society in which acts of sadistic cruelty are glibly celebrated. Does a twinge of conscience about killing thousands of people make it somehow less bad? Exposing the shallowness and even selfishness of remorse becomes one of film's most crushing elements.

The film shines a light on buried brutality, but to what end? I suppose most intelligent people would argue that it's best to look such horror right in the face, that delving into the depths of human depravity is a necessary precaution, but having just done so, I'm not sure I would agree. A reviewer is expected to praise a well-made, moving film, but this is a difficult film to recommend in just that way. It's a disturbing portrait of a society that is a labyrinthine closed system, but the film's broadest implications about the human gaze, the stories we tell ourselves, and the violent elements of mankind's nature give us unforgettable glimpses at some other, larger closed system — call it "being part of the human race" — which will always include us in its terrible, inescapable grasp as well.