The Act of Killing is a disturbing documentary which follows Anwar Congo, a notorious death squad leader in Indonesia. When the government was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar was made the leader of a death squad, contributing to a death toll of almost one million suspected communists. This film isn’t focused on history though. Director Joshua Oppenheimer films Anwar and his friends as they make a movie about their own story. Before he was a brutal murderer, Anwar was a movie theatre gangster, selling scalped tickets to Hollywood films. With his love for classic films, Anwar begins creating disturbing scenes in various cinematic styles for his film, but the reality of what he’s done begins to catch up to him, forcing Anwar to look back at his life and the terrible crimes he has committed.

Trying to come up with a proper synopsis for The Act of Killing is almost as difficult as watching the film. Events are disturbing, but fairly straight forward, in the beginning of the film. There’s no open hatred of Anwar and his men, and they proudly speak of the hundreds of people they’ve personally executed. The country holds them up as heroes, and even government officials speak openly about how they would handle any communist who spoke against them. This seems like a country who lives in fear, masking it with love for the very men who control them.

We first watch Anwar trying to find locals to portray communists for his film, but people are afraid that others will think it’s true, labeling them as communists and essentially sealing their fate. When they finally convince some people, the outcome is anything but Hollywood. Children are crying in terror, thinking that what’s happening is all too real, and Anwar and his men seem to enjoy reliving these nightmares. Slowly, things begin to spiral out of control. Anwar is shown dressed like a cowboy, or a gangster. There are huge musical numbers, and even Anwar winds up in the role of a suspected communist. It’s at this point where Anwar finally confronts his past.

Faced with his own brutal crimes, Anwar seems unable to deal with it. Regret shows in his face, and his words, for the first time in the film. While speaking about his crimes, it takes everything Anwar has to prevent himself from throwing up. You start to feel sad for him, but then you remember that he’s a brutal war criminal, who has never faced punishment for his crimes. This incredible doubt and regret Anwar faces may be the only redemption people get, and it’s certainly not enough.

Is The Act of Killing opening weekend worthy?

This is an incredibly difficult film to sit through due to the subject matter, and it may take days before you finally make a decision about how you feel. It’s because of this fact that people should watch. It won’t be easy, but hopefully in the end, you’ll decide that this was one of the most important documentaries around.

The Act of Killing opens Friday, July 19, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for details. Please note that a 160 minute director’s cut will screen every day, excluding Mondays, at 2:45 pm and producer Anne Kohncke will be present for a Q&A following the Friday, July 19 6:00 pm.

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