The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

I don’t think a documentary can get any more disturbing than this

with 25 comments

Still from the documentary The Act of Killing

Immediately after watching The Act of Killing I tweeted the following:

Watched The Act of Killing. Feeling sick. Want to call a superior extra-terrestrial civilisation to extinguish Earth. Mankind was a mistake.”

I guess this doesn’t entirely make sense. The whole is about genocide, the mass-killing of a million people in Indonesia, which I until now never had heard of. Is it really appropriate to call for the extinction of mankind? Shouldn’t you rather lit a candle and send a prayer for the victims?

But if you’ve seen it, you know where I’m coming from and why I’m tempted to give up on the future of humanity. I can’t recall any documentary that is anywhere near as disturbing, as horrifying, as nauseating as this one was. The villains are unspeakably evil and make the bad guys in ordinary action movies seem like decent people in comparison.

However this death squad isn’t the product of someone’s darkest imagination. They’re not actors who will put the role aside once the camera is shut off. They exist, for real. They’re fathers, grandfathers and they don’t seem to have any regrets whatsoever as they gloat about the different methods they used to kill and torture thousands and thousands of innocent people. They’re equally proud and amused about their deeds in the past, to the extent that they insist on the children in their family to watch them as they’re re-enacting the past recording a film about it.

They’ve never been brought to court to answer for their crimes. In fact it’s quite the opposite: they’re celebrated as heroes in their country.

My fingers are stuttering as I’m trying to compose myself to write anything coherent about this film and all the uncomfortable questions it raises.

Is this what it means to be a human being? I’m no scientist, but I imagine that I have some genes or parts of genes on an atomic level in common with those murderers. We share something, like atoms of the water that Cleopatra drank mixes into the water I’m having now. The recycling of building material in the world as we know it is an ongoing process. But the idea that we’re part of the same species equally appals and frightens me. Given the circumstances were the same, could I do what they did and then laugh about it 40 years later? Is there a monster luring inside every human being? The dark passenger of Dexter, the creature that slipped into people giving them creepy eyes in Twin Peaks – does it exist for real?

On the other hand – I argue with myself – this documentary doesn’t give the entire picture of what we are. There is kindness and empathy and love in the world. As a species we’re capable of both. Darkness and light exists side by side somewhere in the human soul, if there is such a thing, and we have a choice to use either.

What Joshua Oppenheimer does with this film is to bring us to the abyss, letting us having a good look at it. It’s only when we acknowledge its existence that we can choose a different path and take measures so that no one walks into it for any reason, be it drugs, individual insanity or a mass psychosis.

If you only can see one documentary this year, let it be The Act of Killing. Just don’t show it to any alien life form you may encounter in the future. It might cause a panic reaction.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer 2012) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

November 24, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Posted in The Act of Killing

25 Responses

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  1. Somehow your post remind me ‘Three colors – red’ Even thought it is not documentary, nor about murdering. But it is about judgement of humankind.

    doaken

    November 24, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    • I really need to see that. I’ve go a box of the tricolor movies on my shelf – unopened. It’s about time I make use of it, though the blue one is the one I’ve heard most good things about.
      You should catch this, though you might want to find an international edition. The one that currently is up at SVT Play for Swedish viewers is texted in Swedish and the audio is in various languages as far as I remember.

      Jessica

      November 24, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  2. Recently watched this one too. And while I definitely share your disgust and amount of lack of faith in the human race, there was just something missing from this documentary. At some points the Joshua Oppenheimer attempts to make the viewer sympathise with one of the men who committed the genocide, but I just couldn’t swallow it. Sure, it looks like this man has regrets after seeing what he really did by creating his film. But I couldn’t care to give any sympathy towards him. None.

    Definitely not a film I’m wanting to see again, but glad I watched it for opening my eyes a little bit wider.

    Jaina

    November 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    • I didn’t have any sympathies with him either, but I’m not sure it was the intention either. The ending is powerful indeed. But it didn’t make me pity him, really.

      Jessica

      November 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      • Very powerful ending. The whole film just made me wonder what it really is that shapes us as human beings. What is it that makes people do something like this.

        Jaina

        November 24, 2013 at 11:12 pm

        • Yes. Their inner morale compass is so completely differently tuned. It would have made more sense if they had been ashamed of what they’d done, tying to excuse it, cover it, whatever. But they’re proud! Which makes it even worse. They’re like the craziest villains from the movies. But real. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.

          Jessica

          November 24, 2013 at 11:16 pm

          • No, me either. Thinking back to the film, I have to remind myself that it was a documentary. Not fiction. It was so surreal to watch them put together the film and justify their actions. Well, not justify, but not even question their actions. And put themselves on a pedestal. Which they still see themselves on.

            Jaina

            November 24, 2013 at 11:20 pm

  3. Great post, Jessica. I’ve read quite a few reviews on this one and pretty much everyone agrees that the evil on display here is just astonishing. Sometimes it’s disturbing how much harm we can do to other people. Very intrigued about this doc.

    fernandorafael

    November 24, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    • Thank you! I hope you’ll get around to watch it! It seems to have made itself a name so I reckon it will be available in many countries eventually.

      Jessica

      November 24, 2013 at 11:04 pm

      • Hope it gets here soon! I think it’s also the one to beat at the Oscar doc race.

        fernandorafael

        November 24, 2013 at 11:15 pm

        • I can’t think of any doc challenging it right now, but we’ll see. It’s very hard to keep trackof all great documentaries that are done since vey few get theatrical distribution.

          Jessica

          November 24, 2013 at 11:19 pm

  4. I missed this at the cinema but it’s released on Blu-ray this week and I’m definitely going to be picking up a copy. Such a strange concept but one that is clearly extremely powerful.

    Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop

    November 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    • Strange is the word, but it works. I hope you’ll like it. “Enjoy” is the wrong word.

      Jessica

      November 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

  5. Great review as usual! It’s a fascinating and terrifying movie, one which I had no qualms about putting on my most recent top 100 list. It’s a singular film, touching on the idea that the power of movies/stories can sometimes be misused or misunderstood. Totally nuts.

    Alex Thompson

    November 25, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    • Thank you! I can easily see it slipping into a top 100 list of mine too. It’s very creative too I think. The idea of re-enactment sounded strange to me, but it really worked out.

      Jessica

      November 26, 2013 at 12:10 am

  6. Great post Jessica. I do want to see this but I’m in two minds as this type of material tends to haunt me for ages afterwards.

    Mark Walker

    November 26, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    • Thanks! If you can overcome it, I think you should try to see it.

      Jessica

      November 26, 2013 at 11:38 pm

  7. I was fortunate to see the 159 min cut in Lund earlier this year. A screening that was followed up with a Skype interview with Oppenheimer’s co-director “Anonymous”, one of the most interesting things that came out of the interview was that they’re working on a follow up that will be from the victim’s point of view.

    While I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make us sympathize with the killers, it is noteworthy that they placed the most horrific scene (the teddybear) in the end. Ever since I saw it, I’ve been wondering whether this was done that way because the film followed a linear story where the stakes get higher and higher, or perhaps because the filmmakers didn’t want it to obstruct our perception of Anwar Congo right from the beginning.

    I say this knowing that 1) It does not need to be either one and 2) the other stuff he confessed to do was horrific, but I do believe the audience have a tougher time accepting a character when the victims are infants and not adults.

    Dino

    November 28, 2013 at 7:47 am

    • You’re lucky! I saw the severely cut one at SVT Play, only 1 hr 35 min long. I’m frankly not sure of what scene you’re referring to. Perhaps it wasn’t included in my version.

      Jessica

      November 28, 2013 at 8:19 am

  8. Just watched this light night (the long director’s cut) and I felt the same thing you tweeted. So horrifying but impressively honest.

    Squasher88

    December 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    • Fantasic. More than a month after seeing it, its still very present in my mind.

      Jessica

      December 31, 2013 at 3:11 pm

  9. […] 5. The Act of Killing If you’ve seen it, you know why I’m tempted to give up on the future of humanity. I can’t recall any documentary that is anywhere near as disturbing, as horrifying, as nauseating as this one was. The villains are unspeakably evil and make the bad guys in ordinary action movies seem like decent people in comparison. […]

  10. History is written by the victors. As long as you come out as the winner at the end, all the killings are swept under the rags.

    Some haunting scenes in this movie, I still vividly remember the whole “let’s burn a village and rape everyone scene”. The way in which they casually talk about raping 12 year olds… Or how they are celebrated on national TV, explaining the best way to kill someone for everyone to hear.

    It’s a unique document. How many times do we see mass murderers willing to discuss why they did things? And what does it do to the soul of people who do these things?

    Kind of what I felt was missing from 12 years a slave. What goes on in the people who whip the slaves or lynch them? Do they flee in booze? Do they sleep bad at night? How do they cope with it? It only touched these issues slightly.

    carrandas

    February 23, 2014 at 1:39 am

    • I think the fact that it is a documentary adds a dimension to it that no feature film, no matter how good it is, ever quite can get to. The knowledge that this actually happened for real, it’s not something that took place in the mind of a screenwriter, inevitably makes you take it more seriously.

      Jessica

      June 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm


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