September 12th, 2012
03:16 PM ET
Editor's note: Tom Charity is a freelance movie critic for CNN Digital.
When Werner Herzog calls your documentary surreal, you know you’re on to something.
But Herzog doesn’t stop there: Of Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing," Herzog marvels, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade.” The film is, he declares, “unprecedented in the history of cinema.”
And Herzog is not alone. The master American non-fiction filmmaker Errol Morris calls it “Amazing… unlike anything else I have seen." Like Herzog, Morris signed on as an executive producer to help director Oppenheimer get it out into the world.
That effort took a significant step forward this week with the doc’s unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival, generating the sort of buzz you might expect with two such heavyweights in your corner.
And rightly so: “The Act of Killing” is eye-opening both as a radical development in the documentary form and as an explosive journalistic expose. It’s also a deeply disturbing emotional experience, a movie that some audiences will find upsetting or hard to stomach, even if it is also poetic, funny, profoundly strange and moving.
How could it be otherwise, when we are confronted with Indonesian gangsters re-enacting scenes of murder and torture that originally played out during the mass extermination of Communists in 1965 and 1966? (Conservative estimates put the number of victims at over one million across Indonesia as a whole.)
Anwar Congo and his friends in Northern Sumatra claim several hundred of those scalps for themselves, and, as Oppenheimer discovered, they aren’t the least bit shy about it.
“The power structure in North Sumatra comes from the killers, so they have complete impunity [and legal immunity],” Oppenheimer said. “The basis of a gangster’s power is to be feared. How better to be feared, if you have killed all these people, than to boast about it?”
He first traveled to Indonesia ten years ago to work on a film called “The Globalization Tapes," and had talked to survivors who had lost husbands and fathers.
“But they were too scared to talk about it. They said I should talk to the killers, and they pointed out where they lived, and I went and hung around and pretended to film village life hoping that I would be invited in. And very quickly I was."
Oppenheimer talked to some 40 former members of the Death Squads before he got in touch with Anwar, a dapper septuagenarian who used to be a “movie theater gangster," scalping tickets outside the cinema in the early 1960s. It was when Anwar explained how he copied various killing methods from the Hollywood movies he loved that Oppenheimer had the idea for “The Act of Killing”: he invited Anwar and his buddies to “dramatize their memories” in a movie.
It’s a masterstroke, a ploy that turns his subjects into active collaborators and the apparatus of moviemaking into the ultimate wire tap. The aging thugs eagerly sign on to play themselves. They take Oppenheimer to the places where they interrogated, tortured and killed their victims; they helped cast the extras; and shaped and improvised the scenes themselves, suggesting improvements and ways to make it more truthful and more cinematic.
Gangster films loom large in their imagination, as you might expect, but as filming went on, they incorporated tropes from other genres, too: the western, film noir, war and horror movies - there are even song and dances numbers.
Crucially, Oppenheimer captured their free and frank conversations before and after each take, “moving in and out of fiction,” as he put it. He even filmed them watching the rushes afterwards: “I was worried they might stop the filming, but in fact Anwar’s reaction is that he should dye his hair black, like it used to be. These are selfish, boastful, arrogant men.”
Even so, as the shooting extended over months and years they began to reassess their role in history and how “heroic” it might look to outside eyes. Anwar’s slowly dawning apprehension of the terrible guilt he carries is, frankly, horrific.
Did Oppenheimer not fear for his own safety?
“Very few moments,” he claimed. “It was much scarier when we were filming with the victims because we were always being harassed by the police or the military. I am an American making an American movie, they love American movies, America always supported them and they just assume I am on their side. I really didn’t have to lie. All I had to do was not show how upset I was and to treat them like human beings, not monsters. And they’re not monsters, they’re just greedy, small-minded men, and what they do is so human. That’s the terrible thing.”
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