Drafthouse Films Spotlight: THE ACT OF KILLING [Two Cents]


Two Cents
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

Drafthouse Films exists as a fluke. Or, if not a fluke, then as an anomaly. The Alamo Drafthouse theater company has steadily established its reputation as a Mecca for film geeks, with their fondness for playing the bizarre and forgotten alongside the mainstream and beloved, their phenomenal food and drink, and their “No Texting, No Talking” policy that is actually enforced, resulting in incidents like THIS.

When theater owner/certifiable madman Tim League found out that no distributors were lining up to release Chris Morris’s incredible terrorist-themed farce Four Lions, he stepped up and created Drafthouse Films to bring it to the world personally. Since then, Drafthouse Films has become shorthand for some of the most exciting, challenging fare to hit cinemas, bringing everything from lost masterworks of insanity like Dangerous Men and Roar!, to unexpected documentaries like The Dog and The Overnighters, to prestigious arthouse fare from overseas like The Tribe and Bullhead, to whatever the fuck Klown is.

The annual Fantastic Fest at the end of September is a showcase for the Alamo, with film geeks from across the world pouring into Austin, Texas to see the weirdest and wildest in what world cinema has to offer. To celebrate, we’re spending this month checking out some of the titles that Drafthouse Films have shared with curious cinemagoers.

To lead things off: The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning, Oscar-nominated documentary, produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Oppenheimer initially set out to interview the families of victims of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960’s, which saw over a million massacred for either being Communist, being accused of being Communist, or committing a variety of ‘other’ crimes, such as being Chinese in Indonesia. But in researching the film, Oppenheimer learned that the people who perpetrated the murders were never actually punished and in many cases remain in power within the government. Gangsters recruited to carry out mass murder were living kingly lives in full view of the public.

So he met them. And he filmed them. And he gave them equipment so they could make their own movie about what they did. Watching Oppenheimer’s documentary, you don’t know whether to laugh or puke, and might just opt for both. It is a blistering film about the past’s sins. Though, based on the dozens of crew members credited as “Anonymous” for fear of reprisals (including Oppenheimer’s own co-director), those sins are not the past’s alone.

(Note: When this came up as a pick, a number of Cinapse staffers point blank refused to watch this movie again, but offered up their previous reviews for this column.)

Did you get a chance to watch along with us this week? Want to recommend a great (or not so great) film for the whole gang to cover? Comment below or post on our Facebook or hit us up on Twitter!

Next Week’s Pick:

Shifting away from mass murder, next week we will accept Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. The acclaimed thriller details a L.A. dinner party that goes very, very wrong over the course of an evening. The film is currently available on Netflix Instant and other streaming platforms.

Here’s the deadline schedule for the rest of this month’s Drafthouse Films Spotlight. All of these titles are currently available streaming on Netflix:
9/08 – The Invitation
9/15 – The Keeping Room
9/22 – The Final Member
9/29 – The Look Of Silence

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co!

The Team

Jon:You often hear the words “this is an important film”. Well, The Act of Killing sets the bar for use of that phrase. Watching it was one of the most powerful and mesmerizing experiences I have ever had in a theater. Oppenheimer didn’t make a film, it’s more like he has eked it out of the shadows. Peeling back the layers on a country, government and individuals, bringing their shame to light with a shocking elegance. As the credits roll, keep watching. I think you will anyway to absorb a little of what was just on screen, but the credits are fascinating to see, and show the bravery and audacity of so many involved in making this film. I applaud them all. The Act of Killing is a brave and audacious feat of filmmaking that reinforces the importance of the craft while offering an unflinching look at some of the darker aspects of mankind. (@Texas_Jon)

Jon has previously reviewed the film, read his full thoughts HERE.

Elizabeth: Many moments of The Act of Killing cause a visceral reaction; I found myself kneading my collarbone during such discomforting scenes. One moment towards the end almost made me gag.

Oppenheimer never tells you in an explicit fashion how you are supposed to feel about these men. By including their performances in these re-enactments and showing their conversations with others, it’s challenging to view them as monsters. These gangsters may come off as despicable, but are still moral beings. Knowing that these men who committed such violent, horrific acts are lauded by the powers-that-be in their country — that is truly frightening.

Given the unique formula here, The Act of Killing is not your typical documentary. Oppenheimer’s film is aflame with color, from the fiery red uniforms of the Pancasila Youth military force, led by their disturbingly misogynist general, to the pastel vibrancy of the dresses gangster Herman Koto wears during the shooting of the movie and the muddy brown of the fake blood used in their moviemaking. The film is so intense and haunting that it might be sublime. As the filmmaker said during a Q&A after the screening, “This truth is undeniable.” The Act of Killing is no easy feat to get through, but my hope is people will try. (@elizs)

Quoted from Elizabeth’s earlier review, which you can read HERE.

Brendan: At a certain point, it becomes clear that the purpose of the film being made within The Act of Killing has changed. What began as an attempt by mass-murdering monsters to enshrine their “achievements” for history has mutated into one man’s incredibly personal attempt at self-exoneration. Anwar Congo comes to see the movie as his own attempt at penance, even going so far as to stage a musical finale in which he becomes Death itself and his victims thank him for securing their place in Heaven. In one re-enactment, he plays the victim, and later claims that in playing the role he finally felt and understood the pain of his victims.

Throughout the film, director Joshua Oppenheimer has remained off camera and largely silent, only ever halting the film to ask minor clarifying questions. But here, in this moment, he calls bullshit on the whole endeavor and tells Congo that no, no he does not understand what those people felt. And in Congo’s face, you see the horror of that sink in.

And that, ultimately, is the horror at the heart of this film. We can never understand what the dead felt. We can hear the stories, we can sift through history’s ashes, but the dead take their agony with them and leave us searching for answers we’ll never find in this life. The Act of Killing captures that realization. In Congo, it shows a monster slowly understanding that despite his best efforts, his soul is still alive and it will never allow him peace. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin:Shocking in its casual honesty, The Act Of Killing documents the conversations of a group of mass murderers who perpetrated political and ethnic purges in Indonesia in the 1960s. Embracing the philosophy that history is written by the victors, they not only openly justify their pasts, but still enjoy positions of influence and power.

The film is probably best known for the reenactments in which these men recount their own crimes, but the whole vision that Oppenheimer captured is complete in a way that shows them in their frailty and self-doubt, even showing the manipulations behind the manipulations. What resonated with me most was the introspective conversations that they shared with each other: admitting and assuaging guilt, justifying their crimes, shifting blame, and just generally struggling with the truth that they are horrible monsters.

I sampled some of the commentary track featuring Joshua Oppenheimer and (executive producer) Werner Herzog on the director’s cut Blu-ray, and there’s essentially a whole ‘nother film here. Oppenheimer mostly stays in the background and lets the conversations and idle chatter fill in the story without his interruption, but in this commentary he unloads all of his own details and thoughts about the experiences and what’s unfolding on the screen. I’m not sure if I would readily view the film again, but I do want to revisit it with the commentary and listen to the full conversation that unfolds between these two filmmakers. (@VforVashaw)

Filmcat:Totally can’t see you in your orange camo, jerkoffs. (Filmcat)

Did you all get a chance to watch along with us? Share your thoughts with us here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook!

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.