A History of Violence: 'The Act of Killing' is 2013's Most Disturbing Film

By Carman Tse / Special to LAist

When the names Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are both listed as executive producers, you know The Act of Killing is not an ordinary documentary. Director Joshua Oppenheimer's latest film is undoubtedly the most disturbing film of 2013. The Act of Killing focuses on Anwar Congo, one of the self-proclaimed "gangsters" who executed over a million suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese in Indonesia during the bloodbath of 1965-66. Congo, much like his fellow executioners that he remains friends with, has yet to face prosecution for the war crimes he committed as a younger man and lives as a national hero.

Congo is a man who appears to live in an eternal cinematic fantasy. He's always dressed sharp—inspired by his Hollywood heroes John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley. What exactly inspired him to murder a thousand people is never quite explained. The only slight ever mentioned that he takes from the communists was their desire to block screenings of his beloved American films. Tapping into this love of cinema, Oppenheimer offers him the opportunity to tell his story by making a dramatic film in which he's the star of his own story.

This does not end up being The Act of Killing itself, but a meta film-within-a-film that allows Congo to tell his own story as he chooses to see it, guts and all. He casts his own friends, adds a romantic subplot where one of his friends dresses in drag, and even has musical finale at the foot of a waterfall where his own victims thank him for murdering him. But despite all of these flourishes, he manages to stay true to the story in the recreation of his preferred method of execution. Demonstrating to Oppenheimer's documentary crew how he strangles his victims with wire, he boasts that he learned it from American gangster films.

Unlike most documentaries concerning historical atrocities, Oppenheimer chooses to focus his camera on the perpetrators of violence. A seemingly dubious choice given the vanity that seems to go hand-in-hand with the capacity to commit war crimes, the subjects take every opportunity to unknowingly portray themselves in the ugliest manner possible. Current and former members of the Pancasila Youth (the paramilitary that grew out from the renegade executioners of 1965) are frequently seen openly and cheerfully telling the camera of their exploits of murder and rape—unrepentant and sometimes defensively so. At first whatever remorse Congo seems to harbor he appears to put aside, only to have it manifest as recurring nightmares. But as the film shoot continues, he seems to slowly wear down under the enormity of his crimes.

His moment of clarity arrives when he watches his finished product, seeing himself portraying one of his own victims. Finally thinking he grasps the horror and pain he inflicted on a thousand victims, his body seems to involuntarily attempt to purge himself of his sins. The wannabe movie star made into the star of his own movie, hit literally at a gut level by seeing himself transform on the screen. That's the power of cinema.

The Act of Killing opens at the Nuart today and runs for a week. Director Josh Oppenheimer will be in person at the 4:10 p.m., 7 p.m., and 9:50 p.m. screenings, with executive producer Werner Herzog at the 4:10 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings.

Carman Tse is a native of Northern California but not one of Those Guys that hates on Los Angeles (despite his affection for the Giants over the Dodgers). When he's not sharing long-winded thoughts on movies, he's probably sharing long-winded thoughts on baseball or reading about weird sea creatures.