THE ACT OF KILLING // A once-in-a-lifetime documentary about paramilitary leaders (also known as death squad leaders) in Indonesia, “The Act Of Killing” interviews these men about their practices and even has them reenact some of the vicious things they have done, all while unconsciously unraveling them to the point where the film ends with the main death squad leader, Anwar Congo, dry heaving over the cruel acts that he performed, without the film-makers saying a single word (at least on camera). Run a camera on anyone long enough and you will see their layers pull away, something this film takes full advantage of. At the beginning of the film, almost none of the former leaders have regrets, blaming American cinema for the ways they acted when they were young men, as they aspired to be the unrelenting gangsters that were portrayed in films like “Scarface”. And amid this documentary, the former leaders are creating their own film, celebrating their former ways and techniques, bringing to the surface how it actually felt to be the people sitting across from them as they pried answers out of them and got them to talk.

Documentaries that actually chronicle a true change in people or events is very rare. Most often these films involve a particular person talking about a past change not seen on camera and where they have gone since. But “The Act Of Killing” literally captures an awakening on camera, portraying the sudden realization that Congo has done committed inhumane and horrific acts. It comes as no surprise that expert documentarian Werner Herzog is behind this film as an executive producer, as it has the flair and feel of a Herzog documentary. Films like “The Act Of Killing” happen once in a lifetime. How often are you going to see a former death squad leader realize the horrors of his past crimes in such a natural and thought-provoking way? How “The Act Of Killing” got beat at the Academy Award by a sit-down interview with former back-up singers (“20 Feet From Stardom”) is laughable, as it pales in comparison to the depth and dark nature of this unforgettable film.

[Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn] [NR] [115 min] [19 July 2013]   07threehalf-stars

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