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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Overcast
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Murderers present their crimes as movie scenes in The Act of Killing
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Makeup can't cover these people's sins.
Makeup can't cover these people's sins.

There's more than one way to make a documentary about mass murder. Watching The Act of Killing, I kept thinking of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's famous film about the Holocaust. Over 10 hours, Lanzmann examines the history of the extermination camps in excruciating detail. Watching, we sit with this evidence until it is unbearable.

The Act of Killing is a different kind of documentary. It is surreal and ambiguous. I've never seen anything like it, and I have mixed feelings about it. It takes an unconventional, almost whimsical approach to its topic, Indonesia in the 1960s. We learn in opening titles that after the military overthrew the government, paramilitaries and gangsters killed more than one million people accused of being communists. These killers are still in power, we are told.

This introductory material is about all we get by way of historical context. Then we meet some of the murderers. Director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses particularly on former gangsters named Anwar Congo and Herman Koto. They sold black-market movie tickets in the old days, and then they became mass killers who slaughtered communists. The men say their techniques were inspired by American films.

That's the leaping-off point for the documentary's grand conceit, which has the killers reenacting their crimes as scenes from movies -- gangster films, Westerns, musicals. The men do so gleefully. They preen over their makeup and put real energy and emotion into their performances. Sometimes they play murderers, sometimes victims. The most chilling scene involves a village that is burned down after its people are massacred. When the filming ends, the extras look disturbed, and maybe the killers do, too.

The men never seem concerned that they will be punished for their crimes, which they discuss freely. Indeed, they seem to be living comfortably. They have connections high up in the Indonesian government. One dismisses talk of the Geneva Conventions. Another owns a large collection of crystal figurines. One even runs for public office, in a strange sequence that sees him attempting to deliver a stump speech as he is chauffeured around busy city streets. He keeps forgetting his lines. The killers say the scenes they are filming will help them get their message out, though no one seems to know precisely what is going to happen to this footage.

There's no denying the potency, the strangeness, of the reenacted scenes. But after two hours, I was weary of these men, and I worry that the scenes they filmed trivialize the atrocities they are said to have committed. I would like to know more details about what happened. I would like to hear from victims' families, or historians. I would like to hear from someone other than these goons.

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