Surreal. Disturbing. Compelling.
The Act of Killing is the kind of documentary that sits with you long after the credits have stopped rolling. It's not just its content that lingers, but the way its form challenges conventional modes of documentary filmmaking leaves you gobsmacked. It's a masterpiece of dramatic journalism in more ways than one.
When I first glimpsed the trailer for this film in early 2013, I was horrifed. It appeared to be gratuituous and worse, to be glorifying members of death squads who were responsible for the genocide of about 1 million of Indonesians under the rise of the military regime in the mid 1960s.
I couldn't have been more wrong - and regret passing on various opportunities to watch the film in Indonesia. It's impact would have been all the more greater. To observe the reactions of those around me would have deepened my understanding of the diverse and colourful country whose rich history is checkered with periods of intense ultra violence in the not-so distant past.
It was talking with journalists while working in Indonesia that made me realise this was a film I needed to watch. At the next opportunity, I did.
What I love most about this film is the way it turns approaches to traditional documentary filmmaking on its head. Who would have ever believed that you could approach people responsible for mass-killings and not only have them talk about it, but wear it like a badge of honour and then take it a step further and have them join in the filmmaking process to recreate the scenes of torture and abuse, of village raids and the terrorising women and children. It's pure genius.
The Act of Killing is a chilling glimpse into the minds of killers who've been treated a national heroes for their work in ridding "labour communists" from the archipelago and have used their status to further their influence on their communities to this day.
The transformational journey of the key character gives some hope in this journey into the dark side of the human psyche, which in itself has intensely uncomfortable yet morbidly fascinating scenes. The overwhelming physical reaction on return to a torture chamber is one of the most compelling scenes I have ever seen captured on film. It was like watching evil spirits rise in wretching writhing pain as realisation seeks to purge the horror of what has occured. I watched. breathless. stunned.
The scenes of recreation are also bizarre and twisted. Couple this with colour-drenched dramatic dancing scenes in front of waterfalls and breathtaking mountain vistas and you have a movie quite like nothing else.
While the innovative approach to the film was impressive, as was its journey into understanding the psyche behind the men behind genocide, which has raised its ugly head in all corners of the globe, it's also a film that tells a story many people need to understand and watch for what it teaches about Indonesia and its history.
Act of Killing is surely deserving of this year's Academy Award for documentary. It's been nominated. It's taken out a swathe of other awards. It should get the gong.
For more information on the film: http://theactofkilling.com