A miracle has appeared without warning in the sky, and it is wondrous and frightening and confusing all at once. The Act of Killing has been picking up awards at film festivals around the world, and though it has not yet become available outside of the festival circuit, I was fortunately able to see it this past weekend at the annual American Film Institute’s (AFI) documentary festival.
Shot on location in Indonesia, The Act of Killing features interviews with aging gangsters and death-squad leaders who are trying to come to grips with the mass genocide they committed in the mid-1960s when the country of Indonesia basically went insane.
In the film, these men (who are still closely tied to the Indonesian government) talk and act candidly—as if there was no camera even present, as if their words and actions were not being recorded for posterity—and freely admit to crimes against humanity.
They debate between themselves about whether there is a difference between “cruelty” and “sadism.”
They re-enact for the camera scenes of brutal murder and torture, as though sensing the need for a catharsis but unable to find the language to express that need.
Indeed, though The Act of Killing seems to provide the audience first and foremost with a complex case study in post-traumatic stress disorder, the film also manages to break new ground in the field of cultural anthropology while simultaneously engaging with many of the most pressing issues of the modern era: issues of genocide, political power, proxy warfare, and the ethics of Hollywood violence.
To top it all off, the film is a potential political game changer, as some sequences are so explosive that they could literally start an Arab Spring-style revolution in Indonesia. Half the film crew is listed in the credits as “anonymous” because their work on the film has put their lives in danger.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog, who helped produce the The Act of Killing, said the film is ”unprecedented in the history of cinema.”
And the AFI festival brochure, in a statement that seemed to inject a rare amount of bias into the competition, called the film “one of the most haunting, disturbing and unforgettable documentaries you will ever see.”
“The film beggars belief,” wrote the Financial Times. “Then it sends belief running into the hills, screaming for help and understanding.”
“Documentary cinema has a new apex,” wrote Blake Howard of That Movie Show.
And yet despite the growing chorus of critics and reviewers who have been absolutely destroyed by the film (it has 100% positive critical reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes), you might never have the opportunity to see The Act of Killing at a theater near you.
Filmmaker and co-producer Errol Morris recently stated that The Act of Killing has still not found the right distribution channels to permit a wide U.S. release. (The film will have a limited run at independent theaters listed here.)
I called the film a miracle.
And if I had to hazard a guess about why it might not find firm foothold in American theaters, I would say that it’s because a miracle is often difficult to understand.
People who’ve never seen a miracle don’t always know what they’re looking at.
A miracle is fearful and awesome and raw and those who aren’t ready for it will not be able to package it neatly into a box (or into a 30-second trailer).
A miracle breaks the laws of what we thought possible, it shatters the image we thought we knew and forces us to either turn our back in denial or to reconsider everything.
I pray the Powers That Be will take on the challenge, that they will recognize the truth and power and singular rarity of this film and bend their considerable talents to the task of helping to interpret the miracle for others.
“The truth will always come out,” goes the saying.
And though I am quite sure that in many cases it never does, The Act of Killing cuts through all the platitudes, all the jingoist propaganda of the modern era like a machete, in the process revealing something closer to the truth than film-goers might have ever thought possible.
Here’s the trailer: