With all the advances in technology, it seems as if there has been a huge increase in documentaries that are more artful, beautiful, and captivating in recent years. As it becomes cheaper to shoot in higher and higher quality, the documentarian’s reach grows further, allowing them to capture more of their subjects, with less planning, in more artistic ways. Plenty of recent docs, including The Act Of Killing, almost seem to be blending the lines between Hollywood and reality. To me, it’s almost as if they’re saying “Hey, remember all those things you saw at the theater and wished were real? Well they are, and they’re closer, stranger, and more terrifying than you think.”
A quick aside – I stumbled across an example of this disconnect between how we perceive the world and what’s actually happening recently, when I found the non-profit Not For Sale about slavery. “Slavery? That’s still an issue?” I remember thinking. It’s something that’s been banned, outlawed, and eradicated. Sure, there’s sex trafficking, but it’s so far away and remote, right? That’s what we’re taught in school and that’s what we seem to believe. But the statistics prove that today there are more slaves in the world than ever before, nearly 30 million people. When faced with this fact (and that 30 million people could be an entire country), it seems like something out of a movie, (or perhaps even an episode of Game of Thrones). There’s no way this is still real, and happening, is there? It is, and I believe having these facts thrown in our face is what makes these new documentaries so powerful.
Making a doc about a war criminal is one thing. It’s been done a dozen times, and I’m sure they’re all on some sort of loop over at the History Channel somewhere. But that’s where The Act Of Killing digs its claws in and becomes more surreal than a Hollywood film; it’s not just about the man – it’s about the act, and the psyche that drove a person to commit genocide. How are they revered as a heroes? Why haven’t they been tried? And how will they glorify their own acts when given the chance to turn their murders into a Hollywood-like feature?
From what is shown in the trailer, we find that Anwar, the leader of a death squad during a genocide in his native country, is alive and well, untried for his crimes, and revered as a local hero. In fact, from the glimpses we are given, he looks like he could be anyone. No demon horns, no scarred evil face wreathed in flames – just a person. To me, these glimpses are the most telling. Maybe a person’s capacity is limitless, and regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or what you look like, our morals are only as strong as the power we’re given. To take a quote from the trailer, “War crimes are defined by the winners, and I am a winner.”
Here, the directors take these leaders and invite them to re-create their killings in the style of Hollywood blockbusters, tickling their imaginations and allowing them to retell and revisit their gruesome acts of glory. From the few moments we are allowed in the trailer, they seem twisted, dark, and horrifically interesting. That, and the costumes their genocide characters are wearing look fantastic. Will this cause them to reflect and see the horrors of their past? Or will it only reaffirm the righteousness of their acts?