The Act of Killing makes movie stars out of war criminals

The Act of Killing movie poster

A new film out of Indonesia takes an unflinching look into the dark heart of political violence.

When you think of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century, the 1965-66 anti-communist purge in Indonesia probably doesn’t top the list.

Maybe it should. But that’s not the main concern of Joshua Oppenheimer, whose film “The Act of Killing” — which is currently playing in Seattle and Tacoma — gives the confessed death squad leaders the opportunity to reenact their crimes on camera.

When I first heard about the film after it played at the Seattle International Film Festival back in MayI assumed those reenactments were part of some sort of campaign for reconciliation for the mass killings of more than 500,000 accused communists.

But watching “The Act of Killing” last night at the Varsity, I was surprised to find out the killers, and the politicians that enabled them, and much of Indonesian society as a whole, remain unrepentant about the massacres.

It’s hard to understand exactly why; Oppenheimer is so unrelenting in his commitment to immersing you in the disturbing world of these now-elderly killers, who oscillate between bragging about and justifying their crimes, that there is little room for context. The grainy archived footage, talking-head historians and human rights activists that you might expect from a film about genocide are set aside in favor of gory stage makeup, bizarre neon costumes and a choreographed dance numbers assembled by self-proclaimed gangster Anwar Congo and his partners-in-crime to bring their decades-old glory back to life on the screen.

If there is a hell, it probably looks a lot like the gaudy grindhouse scenes they assemble on the meager budget doled out by Oppenheimer, who seems to have orchestrated the entire project not to illuminate this specific Indonesian tragedy, but to confront the darkness lurking in all humankind.

Regardless, this is justifiably being hailed as one of the most powerful and innovative documentaries ever made. If you can stomach it, it’s definitely worth watching.

The Art of Killing is playing in Seattle at the Varsity Theatre and at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma. The filmmaker will be appearing on The Daily Show tonight.