Many of my favourite films of recent years have been classified as documentaries (The Fog Of War, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Inside Job, Beware Of Mr Baker, Nostalgia for the Light, Stories We Tell….) but the one that won the Bafta in that category last year takes the genre into brave, new territory.
In The Act Of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer puts in front of the camera a handful of the gangster* paramilitaries who helped the Indonesian army torture and kill around a million ‘communists’ in 1965/66. He then encourages them to create fictionalised versions of their acts. Being still highly-regarded by the current regime, they are keen to do so and, being fans of Hollywood films, they use the language of the Western, film noir, the musical and the gangster film.
The result is a devastating, upsetting, mesmeric, often surreal, portrait of corrupted humans who are celebrated and still valued by a corrupt government. It is now available on DVD/Blu-ray and I urge you to see it.
*The label ‘gangster’ is worn as a badge of honour, as it is understood to mean ‘free man’. Hence the use of Born Free in the film.
Given the subject matter, I realise that this is a big ask, but its a story I was woefully ignorant of and one that the West is entirely complicit in (the CIA provided lists of names for the killers, the UK provided support for the regime and we all buy goods made in Indonesia). Here’s a bigger ask: buy the Blu-ray, as it also contains two interviews with Oppenheimer. He is extremely articulate and honest about how he came to make the film (which took eight years in total!) and the processes he used, and he gives some extraordinary context to the characters and events it shows. He also dismisses the notion that ‘documentary’ = ‘truth’ and instead uses the term ‘non-fiction’ to describe films that tell the stories that real people tell, even if they’re not ‘objectively true’.
The interviews also explain the fish.