The 10 best films of 2013
The Act of Killing
Peter Bradshaw introduces our favourite film of 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing. A documentary on the Indonesian mass-killings of the 1960s, Oppenheimer uses his brutal and brilliant film to invite the cinephile killers of the Suharto era re-enact their crimes for the camera
Jagal - The Act of Killing (full movie)
Friday 20 December 2013 10.00 GMT
Indonesia's military coup in 1965 ushered in the rule of Major General Suharto, after a purge during which approximately half a million people were murdered as alleged communists by paramilitaries and mobsters. The memory of this mass slaughter is reawakened by documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer in a remarkable and at times unwatchably explicit film, which tracks down the ageing and entirely unrepentant perpetrators and invites them to re-enact the most grisly escapades in the style of their favourite movies. It is a situationist nightmare which flings the evil in our faces — and finally in their faces, too.
Apart from everything else, Oppenheimer shows that unlike the wholesale brutalities in, say, Cambodia or Bosnia or Rwanda, where there has been a flawed but reasonably well-understood institutional attempt to come to terms with the past, the deaths in Indonesia are not officially considered anything to be ashamed of. There is no historical process. Nobody is reassessing or reconsidering the deaths — other than with a warm nostalgic glow. The people involved have grown to old age as part of modern Indonesia's governing class, and the paramilitary tradition in Indonesia continues to flourish.
The Act Of Killing is a Marat/Sade for our times. Just as Peter Weiss's play imagined the imprisoned Marquis De Sade leading the asylum inmates in a dramatisation of Jean-Paul Marat's assassination, so Oppenheimer has found some of the grinningly cheerful killers, now grey-haired grandpas, and persuaded them to revive their most atrocious crimes of torture and mayhem in the styles of the gangster-flicks, Westerns, war movies and musicals which they adore. They are only too happy and delighted to do it. Oppenheimer gives them more than enough rope to hang themselves. A "victim" is despatched to heaven in a bizarre, dream-like musical number with Born Free playing in the background. A brutal interrogation scene is acted out, with the old guys themselves, as excitable as little kids, dressed up as 30s-style mobsters in fedoras.
The murderous bully who stars in this film is Anwar Congo, a racketeer who with his crew ran local cinemas: hence his interest in the movies. He and his associates killed hundreds; now they dress up in various bizarre costumes and helpfully describe everything they did. Merely re-enacting these violent events is visibly too much for some of the participants, playing the victims, on whom the awful truth is beginning to dawn. Despite or even because of the extravagant absurdity of this bizarre pantomime, the reality of what went on begins to dawn on the perpetrators.
A conventional documentary film-maker might challenge these men upfront with what he or she considers to be their crimes and give them a chance to answer back: or in response to silence, he or she might track them down, shove cameras and microphones in their faces which would be duly shoved aside by the angry old killers. Not here. The bad guys are the willing participants: they even sort of know that they are the bad guys — in the sense that the bad guy was always the most charismatic figure in any movie, and they consider themselves to be the buccaneering soldiers of fortune who did some enjoyable dirty work in the war against communism. The idea of movie playacting moreover gratifies their own tendency not to take the idea of guilt at all seriously. Yet fascinatingly, and sensationally, these film re-enactments have entirely the opposite effect.
As the movie proceeds, the tension builds. Will these people realise what we realise? Will they twig, on a simple level, how they are going to be represented in the film? Finally, there is an intestinal explosion of horror. It is a gut-churning film: and a radical dive into history.
The 10 best films of 2013 No 1 / The Act of Killing
The 10 best films of 2013 No 2 / The Great Beauty
The 10 best films of 2013 joint third / Behind the Candelabra
The 10 best films of 2013 joint 3rd / Gravity
The 10 best films of 2013 No 5 / Django Unchained
The 10 best films of 2013 No 6/ Before Midnight
The 10 best films of 2013 No 7 / For Ellen
The 10 best films of 2013 No 8 / Only God Forgives
The 10 best films of 2013 No 9 / I Wish
The 10 best films of 2013 No 10 / Wadjda