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Toronto 2012 Diary: The Act of Killing

By Nicolas Rapold on September 09, 2012 in Film Comment Featured

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Our first dispatch from Toronto considers The Act of Killing, the jaw-dropping, tricky documentary that had its world premiere.

The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer Toronto 2012

“It’s all bad,” said The Act of Killing co-director Joshua Oppenheimer as he introduced the world premiere of his ethically fraught, extraordinary new film. The setup: mass-murdering gangsters in Indonesia tell all! How? By making a terrible movie recreating their exploits, of course, with Oppenheimer’s assistance. The killers, accomplices of the government-sponsored slaughter of accused Communists, ethnic Chinese, and others in the Sixties (and beyond), take center stage for nearly the entirety of the film, chewing up the scenery in rehearsals and reenactments of interrogations, killings, and a village massacre. Along the way, conversation, questioning, and good old fly-on-the-wall hanging-around—the gangsters regularly address “Joshua”—elicit a candidness about evil deeds that rivals the likes of S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, showing criminals well into their old age alongside thriving present-day paramilitary groups.

The Act of Killing Joshua Oppenheimer Toronto 2012

Very thornily entangled in Oppenheimer’s coup in eliciting such stories, however, is the extent to which the film dredges up trauma and fulfills the vanity of would-be war criminals. Opening with a high-minded Voltaire epigraph, Oppenheimer has constructed the film to suggest that its technique and its payoff—partly involving a mindfuck turnabout to make executive producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog green with envy—are inseparable. Yet, as Oppenheimer’s introduction averred, this is a film that is about the bad, and in so focusing on the gangsters, keeps the voices of victims nearly silent. That may be a bitter pill to swallow for many viewers, the less diplomatic of whom might rush to formulate a new slot on our recent Index, despite the film’s horrific testimony (which, while firsthand, must already be on the record). One of the most queasy-making films in some time—shock and outrage at the grotesque spectacle of impunity settle into helpless numbness over the course of the 116-minute running time—The Act of Killing and its backstory no doubt have more to reveal upon closer investigation, though what it’s shown is already hard to forget.

The second dispatch from Toronto can be found here.

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