Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Act of Killing (2012)

WHO: Joshua Oppenheimer directed this film, along with Christine Cynn and another, anonymous, co-director.

WHAT: The Act of Killing is not just a movie. It's a starting point for discussion, understanding, and hopefully transformative political change- and not just in the country where it was filmed. It's a very 21st-century documentary, in that it cannot be fully comprehended by an audience unfamiliar with Indonesia's political history. If you don't know this history at all (and perhaps even if you do), you are likely to walk away from a viewing of the film with some serious misapprehensions about it.
But watching is a powerful experience no matter what your level of foreknowledge. Complaints that the film needs more context ignore two things: the fact that in 2013 it's increasingly easy for many if not most viewers to do enough basic research after being moved by a screening that they'll have sufficient ability to understand what they missed, and the fact that a less-informed viewer might be able to better apply the universal themes about the nature of humanity to contexts outside Indonesia, than an informed viewed might.

Part of the paradox is that the film's power to shock us out of complacency comes in part from its strangeness and surprises. Which means it's probably best for a fresh viewer not to do much if any reading about the film before viewing it, especially if they're not well-versed in Indonesian politics. Thus I'm avoiding saying much about the film at all. But if you absolutely must read about the film before watching it, I'll point to Arya Ponto's review as one I really appreciated reading after my own viewing.

WHERE/WHEN: Multiple showtimes daily through Thursday at the Opera Plaza Cinema, the Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. It will remain for another week at the Opera Plaza starting Friday, but disappear from the other two venues. It will return to the East Bay September 13-19 at the New Parkway in Oakland.

WHY: Mid-August is the time of year when film festivals are few and far between and mainstream Hollywood films aren't even expected to be very good by their most ardent fans. So it's a perfect time to catch up with new arthouse releases, of which this is probably the most "important" and unusual currently in local cinemas.

HOW: All three venues currently screening this digitally-produced documentary are doing so digitally and in the 122-minute version. I'm hoping the all-digital New Parkway or another local venue will consider showing the 159-minute extended cut (which I believe has not screened at any Bay Area venue).


  1. I was disappointed by the movie, especially after all the hype. For an examination of surviving political killers I prefer "S-21" ,on the Khmer Rouge. And for the theme of such thugs being influenced by gangster cinema I prefer "Tony Manero," on Chile.

  2. I haven't seen Tony Manero unfortunately. But I am a huge fan of Rithy Panh's films, including S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. From what I've seen Panh's films are far more formally interesting than this mere one I've seen by Oppenheimer, Cynn and (presumably) Anonymous. But S-21 tackles a very different sort of killer than The Act of Killing, and I think each film extracts some amazing moments that the other is unable to come close to.

    I wonder what in particular you found disappointing. I too expected more after the hype, and it was only after I finished watching it and began reflectively thinking about it that I began to realize its achievement.

  3. Well I was one of those old fashioned people who wanted more context, about the U.S. role, etc. Also questioned his approach getting too close to the subjects, schmoozing with them, after just having seen Hannah Arendt where the dumbed down, misunderstood version of her Eichmann writing was that she was sympathizing with him, Oppenheimer comes too close for comfort to this in my opinion.
    Agree with you on Panh, I recently saw his remake of Clement's This Angry Age, with Huppert in the Jo Van Fleet role, on Canadian TV, quite interesting.I should also rephrase that bit about gangster cinema as Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever really isn't.