The Act of Killing (Jagal)

The Act of Killing

I’ve tried to forget all this.

I had only a cursory knowledge of the content of The Act of Killing going into it, which was what I had wanted to do. Of what little I knew, I’d gotten the impression (or, rather, an inkling) that the less I knew of what the film actually did and covered, the more powerful the message would ultimately be. It was about halfway through the film that I began to wonder what exactly was the point of it all, that the film’s message was such a rudimentary and innately-understood one that it seemed redundant and perfunctory to put it to film at all. Well, I can provide one major counter-argument to this thought; the film’s conclusion, which ended on such a powerful note that it actually threatened to color my opinion of the piece as a whole. But, and here’s the kicker, for whatever mysterious reason, it didn’t; for all the effect the film’s ending had, I still couldn’t ignore the fact that for most of the running time, I was left wondering why I was watching it at all.

The film’s subject matter follows the people behind the mass killings that took place in post-coup-d’etat 1960s Indonesia, a general genocide that was not only overlooked by the government at the time, but orchestrated and willingly put forth into motion. In particular, we follow Anwar Congo, who was one of the leaders of the groups that were behind most of the killings, and who personally laid claim to over a thousand deaths. The film goes about Anwar and his friends reminiscing about their actions, as well as recreating and re-enacting some of the torturing and killing they did in the guise of the various film genres they say inspired their actions, like gangster and crime films. There’s a perverse sense watching these people discuss their killings, and the re-enactment of their killings, with such candor and sobriety, as if we get the sensation that what they are describing is not sinking into them at all, but washing over them like rain over a rooftop. And, of course, that’d be the point, as emphasized in the film’s stirring conclusion, which subverts this notion of aloof unaffectedness on the main subject himself. If for nothing else, the film is worth watching as a build-up to that section alone. Still, it was a real shame that the rest of the film shaped around that part was so blase about the whole thing. Sure, in some ways it needed to be, to really hammer home the reality of these men and their lives and actions and frame them in a much more natural light, seeing as how these things really happened, instead of glorifying it or outright condemning it like a fictional film would probably end up doing. But, and this is a but that I’ve raised numerous times in the past, that doesn’t make the resulting product all that entertaining or, at the bare minimum, watchable. It was, at the very least, well shot, and even with the film’s handheld nature, the camera was amazingly steady at times, especially when it really needed to be.

The Indonesian government responded quite negatively to this film, calling it misleading and worrying about the poor portrayal of their country in regards to how their government basically encouraged the actions of these men, besides merely condoning it. Once again, this would seem to be precisely the point, and one can easily find a small bit of humor in the fact that such a film is indeed being condemned by the people ultimately responsible for the subject matter, as if any other response would have been even remotely expected. Director Joshua Oppenheimer takes it a step further, accusing the United States and the U.K. of having implicit involvement in the killings as well, something which, true or not, has not been as widely covered in the reception and reporting of the film; one can make of that what they will. Ultimately, however, with all this said, I went into this film with one expectation (well, two, if you count having my eyes opened to something I had been largely blind to, but I figured on this happening regardless of my expectations of it): that the film, to really get its point across to me, would have to be fairly entertaining in presenting its material, regardless of what the material really is. In this regard, the film did not succeed. But, to wholly discount what the film does achieve is to be a little bit too unfair to the film and its message, even if I personally thought it took a little too long it getting to the film’s admittedly powerful climax. The supposed importance of this aside, I really don’t see how this should’ve made the list. In a weird way, I ended up with a similar opinion of this as I did the horror film Carrie; sure, the conclusion is the whole point, and might be ultimately worth it, but that can’t discount having to sit through the whole rest of the film leading up to then, especially when the rest of the film is such a chore to get through.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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