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vjmorton

The Act of Killing

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Apparently there is no thread dedicated on this fantastic Indonesian-Danish documentary film yet. It's likely to end the year #1 on my 10 Best list (and I can't imagine it falling below about #3). Here is my review from Toronto:

 

Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.

 

 

 

And here is Eve Tushnet at the American Conservative:

 

But “Act of Killing” suggests that conscience isn’t always as malleable as we might like. I don’t intend to trivialize the torture and murder committed by Oppenheimer’s stars when I say that I think everybody can relate to the experience of feeling our definitions of morality, guilt, and unconscionable behavior stretch and shift so that our own sins become bearable.

 

 

I should warn, in case it isn't already obvious, that ACT OF KILLING is a very very dark film, and emotionally grueling to watch. There is a scene where some children (among many adults, to be sure) are used as extras in a re-enactment of an attack on a village, and it's quite clear they don't really get the notion of "acting" yet. There is kind of a redemptive thread, but it's slight, which (in my opinion) makes it feel far more earned than the cathartic moments at the end of the typical "atrocities-muckraking" film.

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Opens in Miami on the 15th and can't wait to see it. 

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I missed this film when it passed through Vancouver, but, just for the record, there are two versions of it -- the shorter 115-minute version, which is apparently the only one being released in the US right now, and the longer 159-minute "director's cut". (Which version did you see in Toronto, vjmorton?)

Here's the "director's statement" on the subject:

With the exception of the USA, the director’s cut is always released together with the shorter version — apart from in Australia and NZ, where the long version is the only version being released.

A little more about the difference between the versions: the director’s cut is my preferred version, the full culmination of my eight year journey making this film. It is also the preferred version of supporters like Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and James Marsh (Man on Wire). In fact, Werner argued strongly against making a shorter version after he saw it.

Viewers who have seen both versions usually prefer whichever version they see first, unless there is real time between the two screenings.

They often say that the short version works well, but the director’s cut uses its extra run time to do a deeper, more profound work - something they have not seen before. They understand more clearly Anwar’s emotional development. The vision is broader, the impact deeper. A number of people have told me that the long version actually feels shorter, because we feel more for the characters, and therefore care more for what’s going on. People also say the pauses give them space to reflect, to take in the surreal material — and that makes it feel more real, and therefore more important.

In the director’s cut there are important narrative elements that simply didn’t fit in the 115-minute version: for example, it explores the role of propaganda cinema in maintaining anti-communist fervor — and in soothing the killers’ conscience. It also reveals more of the filmmaking method.

More importantly, the story unfolds more gradually, to a more intimate rhythm, and becomes more enormous in its scope. It gives us more time to get close to the characters, to better understand their development, to be immersed in the experience and world of the film in a different way.

The full version also gives the viewer time to get lost with Anwar in his nightmares. These begin simply as his bad dreams, but they grow to embody the nightmare of a man living with mass murder on his conscience. They grow further to encompass the nightmare of humanity itself living with genocide and blindness as the foundation of our everyday normality. And as the nightmare grows, Anwar and his friends’ fiction scenes reveal deeper truths than the observational documentary material. The boundaries between fiction and documentary blur. The fiction scenes takes over the film’s form, unmooring it and sending it spiraling into a surreal fever dream. The phantasmagoria builds more gently than in the 115-min version, and evolves more organically from Anwar’s imagination — but it reaches greater meaningful heights.

Perhaps most significant, though, is the end of the film. In the film’s final act, Anwar’s descent is more complex than in the shorter version: his anger and sadism return with a vengeance, in direct reaction to his growing regret. Remorse makes him angry — and he takes it out on his victims. The result is devastating — and it happens almost in real time.

Joshua Oppenheimer

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I missed this film when it passed through Vancouver, but, just for the record, there are two versions of it -- the shorter 115-minute version, which is apparently the only one being released in the US right now, and the longer 159-minute "director's cut". (Which version did you see in Toronto, vjmorton?)

 

I saw the 115-minute version, twice. Not any particular aesthetic interest in seeing the longer version as I think it does nearly everything Oppenheimer says the longer version does. Obviously some "scholarly" interest might lead me to check it out some day, but only in the same sense I checked out the Rick Schmidlin 4-hour GREED reconstruction, while maintaining that the canonical 130-minute cut is Stroheim's film.

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Whew-- just saw it. I can't say I would ever sit though it again, but it is unquestionably a powerful and important film. Harrowing, in every sense. 

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So much to unpack in this film. The Act of Killing. There are about three different ways to tackle the title alone.

 

There will be a lot of talk about beginning with the atrocities, the actual history from 1965 that some of us are only learning about. The film is great from an educational standpoint beginning there. But then, there will be a lot of talk about the reenactments, and the pride of the perpetrators. Again, you do not ever see anything like this. It's another part of The Act of Killing that will blow your mind, and make you scream for justice.

 

But the part that really gets me going, and the part I'd like to see more discussion on is the film's end, and how much of an "act" it is. I am speaking here about Anwar and how he seems to have changed over the course of the film.

 

I have no idea whether or not this is a documentary. If it is, it's more of the Exit Through the Gift Shop, or Catfish, or I'm Not Here type. But to even compare The Act of Killing to these mockumentaries would, in my opinion, almost disrespect the more necessary, morally needy nature of The Act of Killing. It's something I wouldn't want to do. But at the same time, Anwar at the end of this film begs the question of what is real, not only in history, but in his heart -- and even if what he is going through at the end is real, the question then becomes, "Why?" How, and why, did an actual change in his heart take place? And the matters of the heart, even greater than the atrocities from the past, and how the heart seems to somehow change (maybe), bring some Herzogian moments, for lack of a better way to describe it.

 

(I have a sneaking suspicion that the change is in Anwar's realization that his deeds are coming closer to being broadcast in a way like never before, to the world at large.)

 

One of the best "documentaries" I have ever seen. Ever. If I had a Top Ten 2013 (I don't feel I've seen enough this year to qualify for making a list) this would top it. Easily.

Edited by Persona

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The moment that took The Act of Killing to a different level for me was the Indonesian TV interview with Congo et al. Up to that point, I'd been thinking that these men were tolerated in the country because of their power, but they are celebrated in that interview; the fervor that motivated the killings in the first place still seems to be around all those years later. At the same time, though, the movie explains that most people who show up at Pancasila rallies are there because they're paid to be. It seems hard to gauge exactly how "regular" Indonesians really feel about the killings, since there's such a strong culture of intimidation and reprisal.

 

I imagine that's why there were so many "Anonymous" names in the credits.

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I have to say, this film is an experience like nothing I've ever seen.  It's like looking straight into the heart of a criminal or an abuser in a relationship, only it's a crime against an entire country and race of people.  The Bible has things to say about works of darkness being exposed by the light.  I think a film like this is an invaluable educational tool and allowing publicity to shed light on the terrible things this regime did, which is the first step toward change.  

 

And in Anwar, we see the first small step toward possible change.  The moment that I thought was most striking was when

Anwar allowed the strangling wire to be placed around his own neck.

 By placing himself directly in the position of those he murdered, he can experience empathy, perhaps for the first time in his life.  At points during the film, you can see small cracks begin to form in the walls of denials these men have built around themselves.  The long term effects are still to be determined, and maybe many of these men won't change.  But maybe someone will.  That is the promise that art can bring.

Edited by Crow

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I'm glad to see quite a few of the A&F crowd catching up with this. I can't see anything replacing it as my top film of the year. (But I tend to favor a good doc over the rest anyway.)

 

Just wanted to quickly stop by and point out that sure -- this is streaming on Netflix. But the DVD contains an extra, which is a forty-five minute interview with the director. And it goes into further detail about the making of the doc itself (eight years and 1200 captured hours of filming beginning with the children of the survivors and then moving more toward the perpetrators who were actually easier to find and film)... It's an awesome extra on the disc.

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I got the DVD from Netflix, then sent it back right away because I found out it was streaming. I should've checked the extras before I did, I guess.

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Peter. Honestly, I can't remember... I think it is the theatrical release. There were plenty of bonus scenes, so if there's a director's cut, I doubt this is it.

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Persona: Actually, there were *two* theatrical versions. Some countries got one, some got the other, and some (like mine) got both. Sounds like the American DVD just has the (shorter) version that played in America, then?

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Persona: Actually, there were *two* theatrical versions. Some countries got one, some got the other, and some (like mine) got both. Sounds like the American DVD just has the (shorter) version that played in America, then?

Interesting. I'm out of the loop on this issue and sent the DVD back to Netflix last week. Hopefully someone else can answer this question.

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My first impressions and thoughts.

 

If what I saw was the shorter version, well, that's fine with me. I thought the film ran too long as it was. Sometimes, the film becomes redundant, as if saying, "And then we caught them saying this on camera. And you think that's amazing? Wait'll you hear what they said here."

 

Update (after reading the this thread): Hey, Crow — it appears I ended up with the same scripture ringing in my ears that you did!

Edited by Overstreet

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It has a strange logline on that page: "Documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog blur fact and fiction in this study of mass killers and the governments that employ them."

 

Morris and Herzog were only executive producers on the film.

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