One of the best-reviewed films of the year (and I mean passionately reviewed as it was also frequently mentioned on Top 10 lists) was none other than a documentary. The Act of Killing translated its critical acclaim into an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature last week. You can figure out why this film has received so much attention. It displays a dark and innovate view of an event that is hardly talked about in the western world. That being said, The Act of Killing is a very problematic film. The film is certainly aggravating (in a good way as that is the intended response) and can be awe inducing in some of its dark reveals, but the film is unclearly directed. It is difficult to figure out what is actually going on and its even further puzzling as to whether the subjects of the film actually know what is going on.
The Act of Killing follows Anwar Congo and his accomplices as they are asked to recreate their life as leaders of a notorious death squad in Indonesia in any cinematic method that they so desire. The film is directed by Joshua Oppenheimer (a documentarian getting his big breakthrough with this film).
Joshua Oppenheimer decides to create this film through an experimental style of filmmaking that has never really been done before in a documentary. He allows the subjects to have a say in how the film is presented by allowing them to stage their own recreations of the death squad’s activities. While this can be interesting and results in some startling revelations and scenes, it is also an incredibly difficult format to put within a film. As such this film comes across as a mess where we never know if we are watching a sincere moment or just a staged setup in the former death squad members’ attempts to get their story onscreen. Even worse though is that it is left very vague as to whether the subjects of the film have any idea what is truly going on. At times it feels like that they think they are actually making a narrative film rather than this documentary. So it can seem like Oppenheimer is pulling a big trick on his subjects, which is disturbing even if that is not the intent.
The Act of Killing is an interesting idea for a documentary. Unfortunately, that idea is not completely pulled off, and the documentary’s dark subject matter makes it even harder to sit through.